Imperialism, Then and Now
Interview with Bertell Ollman

Conducted by Azfar Hussain. Printed in Meghbarta: A Journal for Activism (Bangladesh) and Chinta (Bengal, India), Winter, 2004


AH: Let me begin by noting that your works—particularly Dialectical Investigations and Alienation—are by now well known to a number of political activists and academics on the left in Bangladesh—the country I am from. Recently I was told by some folks that study-groups organized by young Marxist-Leninists in Bangladesh enthusiastically discussed Alienation as early as the mid seventies and early eighties. One particular contention that seems dominant in Bangladesh vis--vis your work is that you have remained firmly committed to the interpretation and application of Marx's work in various ways. Also, your interpretation of "value," in particular, continues to be reckoned exemplary. Since our topics are imperialism and anti-imperialism, I would certainly take up the question of value with regard to imperialism. But I'd do that a little later. Meanwhile, let me begin by asking you about Marx's own work with regard to imperialism itself. There's still a metropolitan assumption that Marx hasn't written anything about imperialism. In fact, Anthony Brewer in his book Marxist Theories of Imperialism begins by contending that there isn't anything in Marx's work at all that corresponds to the concepts of imperialism advanced by later Marxist writers. In our parts of the world, I think, there is still a tendency to indicate that Marx rather forcefully anticipated the imperialist tendencies inherent in the brutally expansive logic of capital at least from The Communist Manifesto down to Capital. In fact, the Indian Marxist historiographer Irfan Habib—while looking at Marx's journalistic work on British colonialism in India—comes to suggest that Marx was close to formulating "the conception of imperialism of free trade" insofar as Marx contends that the re-conquest of India was carried out "for securing the monopoly of the Indian market to the Manchester free traders." Against this background, then, would you please comment on Marx's insights into the question of imperialism as such?

BO: Thanks for the kind introduction. I'll try to live up to it, but as you know I am mainly a Marxist philosopher and have never written anything on imperialism. Still, I may have something to contribute, particularly as regards what to avoid and maybe even how best to approach this subject.

Did Marx have something to say about imperialism? Sure, but this has been hard for some people to see, in part, because he didn't use the term "imperialism" and, in part and more importantly, because there has been a lot of confusion as to the status of this theory. Before we can accurately understand what it "says", we have to be clear on what it is about and what its main authors—like Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding and even to some degree the non-Marxist Hobson—are trying to do with it. In brief, the theory of imperialism is being offered as a way of viewing the current form of the internal relation between capitalism and its state, on a world scale, from the point of view of the state (that is, starting out from the state's activities on behalf of capitalists' interests throughout the world). As such, this theory also brings into focus the contradictions between capital accumulation in the advanced capitalist countries and the peoples of other lands who are forced to contribute to it, and also between the leading capitalist states as each national capitalist class strives to maximize its share of the wealth taken from the rest of the world. In the complex and overlapping struggles that ensue, nationalism becomes the chief way each party both defends and rationalizes its interests, though, of course, the nationalism of the oppressors is different in many respects from that of the oppressed. Though around in one form or another since the French Revolution, it is only with the imperialist stage of capitalism that nationalism—as the ideological dimension of both the imperialist project and the defence against this project—becomes the spirit of the age.

Marx comes into this picture in so far as he supplied the core analysis of how capitalism works as a political-economic system. Based on this analysis, the theory of imperialism simply (?) extends the scale of the analysis to cover the globe, prioritizes the conditions that have emerged in the current stage of capitalism (spread of monopolies, rise of financial capital, etc.) over those of a more structural sort that characterize the entire period, and favors vantage points from which to view the whole that are rooted in the capitalist state's necessary activities on behalf of capitalism throughout the world. In short, the theory of imperialism offers us a Marxist version—but still just a version—of modern capitalism, which like any theory emphasizes certain features and underplays others.


AH: A whole host of Marxist theorists and activists across Asia, Africa, and Latin America still emphasize that the fundamental question of our time is imperialism, while invoking Lenin's work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. For instance, numerous anti-war demonstrations during January and February of 2003—from Brazil to the Bahamas to Bangladesh—underlined imperialism as a fundamental problem for the exploited and the oppressed majority. It is true that Lenin wrote about imperialism from the perspectives of the political economy of capitalism by looking at a particular historical period—the late nineteenth century (and the early twentieth century), for instance. Do you think that this work of Lenin is still relevant to our times? If so, how?

BO: Lenin wrote a long time ago, so I can understand why some people, even some Marxists, might question the relevance of his theory for today. But this is not only a question about Lenin but also about Marx. Hasn't capitalism changed too much for either man's analysis to offer us much help today?

To start with Marx, my response is that capitalism has changed a great deal since Marx wrote, and that capitalism has changed not at all since that time. What I mean is that the main structures of capitalism—that workers have to sell their labor power to capitalists in order to survive, that capitalists use their control over this labor to produce value and surplus value, that everything that workers produce carries a price and goes into the market, that these goods can only be acquired by people who have enough money to pay this price, that the state serves as the society-wide means by which the capitalist class solves the distinctive problems it cannot handle on its own, etc., etc.—have changed hardly at all since Marx wrote. And these are the basic structures, relations and processes—essentially, what makes capitalism different from feudalism on one side and socialism on the other—that Marx devoted most of his life to studying.

These structures can be seen as providing an unchanging (really, very slowly changing) framework inside which the capitalist classes of different countries have tried to deal with their specific opportunities and problems as they arose. Capitalism, in other words, clearly evolves and can even be said to go through stages, part of which effects all capitalists, part of which only effects capitalists in one country, and part of which may only effect capitalists in a particular industry. And these changes are obviously very important, but the sum of them don't erase the basic capitalist structures inside of which they all go on. In other words, what we might call "modern capitalism" (its current stage at any point in the history of this mode of production) coexists with what we might call "capitalism overall" (the structures that set this mode of production apart from others). Marx also wrote about the modern capitalism of his day, but not in the same systematic way that he did about capitalism overall. Accepting Marx's contribution to our subject, Lenin could focus on the modern capitalism of his day and draw out what was specific to it, a task that required, as we saw, changing both the scale of capitalism and the favored vantage point for viewing it.

Which brings us to the question of whether Lenin's description of imperialism as the most recent stage of capitalism is still valid? Here my answer will have to be "yes" and "no". Clearly, much has changed, but much has remained the same. So it is not immediately clear whether we should view our current situation as the development of conditions already described by Lenin (and hence best treated as part of his imperialist stage) or whether we should refigure a new stage of capitalism out of them. My own views on this subject will be given as part of the answer to question five after presenting what is most distinctive about U.S. imperialism.


AH: In Alienation you—appropriately indeed—posit "class as a value-relation." But don't you think that imperialism itself is a value-relation—a globalized value-relation for that matter—while, thus, what has come to be known as "globalization" today itself turns out to be a euphemism for imperialism as such?

BO: In his economic writings, the relation Marx posits between value and labor is one of identity. Value, he says again and again, is the social form of labor. But how can this be? Exchange-value, use-value and even surplus-value are relatively easy to understand, but value as such, value as a form of labor, as the labor expressed in its product, this has been extremely difficult for most people—including economists, maybe especially economists—to grasp. However, if we accept that the labor Marx is talking about is alienated labor and that the dialectic to which Marx subscribed allows the transfer of qualities between the parts of an internally related whole, then a lot of what makes this labor alienated can be seen as turning up, suitably transformed, in its products. Value is the sum of the alienated relations bound up in capitalist labor (that is labor done under capitalist conditions) which are carried over into its products. It is all that they can do and that can be done to them (like being exchanged for other products irrespective of who made it and what their needs for it are) that arise out of their production by workers who have no control over their activity, products, social ties and potential as members of our species. The most important effect of value, understood in this way, is its role in mystifying the social relations in which the products to which it is attached were produced. In my book Alienation, I referred to this alienated character of value as a "value Relation", and argued that alienated activity in other spheres—like politics, religion, education, etc.—transferred the same alienated relations to their products, resulting in similar kinds of mystification. I tried to emphasize this point by referring to this entire range of alienated products as "value relations".

The question, as I understand it, is—can this analysis be applied to imperialism and especially to what has been called "globalization"? I think it can, but here I can only suggest some of what might be involved. Capitalist ideology is all about erasing the traces, erasing the connections that any part of our system has with labor and the class struggle, with history and origins, and of course with the potential for something different and better. By omitting the relations of alienation, exploitation and class and national struggles (of who is doing what to whom and why) that lie at the heart of the theory of imperialism, the notion of "globalization" is perfectly suited to performing the mystifying work that our ruling class requires. How exactly it does this and the contribution to this work made by various value relations in the economy and in politics are clearly important topics that deserve serious study.


AH: I'm curious to know how you would advance your class-analysis—for which of course you have a characteristic Marxist proclivity—in the face of the alarmingly rising gap of income and wealth between rich and poor countries and, for that matter, in the face of the net transfers of economic surplus from "periphery" to "center." In other words, how would you enact a class/nation dialectic in an analysis of contemporary imperialism?

BO: Rather than offering a class analysis of our imperialist epoch, let me just mention six points that I think are crucial in undertaking such an analysis: 1) classes need to be organized first and most (but not only) around people's relation to the prevailing mode of production; 2) one can take into account the social-economic place and function people are headed for (small farmers, small business-people, and students, for example, who are being forced to become workers, even unemployed workers) as well as the place and function they now occupy; 3) following Marx's own use of "class" as an elastic category, one shouldn't hesitate to switch from a broad notion (using only a few interrelated qualities) to a narrow notion of "class" (using many) in keeping with the demands of the occasion; 4) never stray too far from the related notion of class interests both as a means to aid the analysis and as a means for developing an effective political strategy based on it; 5) don't be a prisoner of national boundaries in making your class analysis (they are "part of the problem" and not "part of the solution"); and 6) don't be misled into accepting nation, religion, race, gender, etc. as separate and distinct categories alongside of class (these groups consist mostly of workers with working class interests, and no matter how much some of their members may identify with their other qualities we must never give up trying to make them conscious of this).


AH: Numerous activists on the left from the "third world"—including Badruddin Umar, the Marxist-Leninist theorist-activist currently involved in the ongoing national liberation movement in Bangladesh—keep emphatically saying: "it's not just imperialism—but U.S. imperialism, stupid!" Although there are certain metropolitan arguments that suggest that the U.S. is no longer at the center of capitalism and imperialism (arguments that I find ridiculous), the question still gets asked: "What's new about U.S. imperialism today?" The title of Harry Magdoff's most recent collection of essays—Imperialism Without Colonies—is instructive, while certain arguments that emanated from a number of South Asian anti-war demonstrations in the post-September-11 world emphasize the point that U.S. imperialism—because of capitalism's increasingly massive crises—is returning to even a blatant form of colonialism itself, exemplifying the fact that war is nothing but the gangster-logic of capitalism and imperialism. I'm curious to know what your responses to such arguments are, while I'm also interested in asking you the same question: what is "new" about U.S. imperialism today?

BO: Imperialism today is new in several respects, and none is more important than the fact that it dominated, though not entirely, by one country, the U.S. The European Union, Japan and increasingly China are beginning to push back, but it is not clear that they will ever recreate the more balanced competition that characterized the imperialism of an earlier period. So for now and at least for the near future, what the U.S. is and does is what imperialism is and does. Even the efforts, most advanced in the economic sphere (World Bank, IMF, etc.), to create a collective capitalist front to streamline capitalist exploitation of the entire world is first and foremost an American operation, dominated by American capital and the American state.

It is this innovation more than any other that leads me to think that it might be useful to view our present situation as constituting a new stage not just of capitalism but of imperialism. If we do this, the most distinctive qualities—including scale and point of view—that characterize the stage that Lenin described (with whatever minor adjustments are required) stays in place and serves as a framework for analyzing this latest stage of American dominated imperialism, which we can simply call "American imperialism". In other words, American imperialism is viewed here as having the same relation to Lenin's imperialism that the latter has to Marx's capitalism overall. So, in answer to the question raised earlier (Question 2), I guess I would like to "keep" Lenin's theory of imperialism and "replace" it at the same time.

The relation of Marx's capitalism overall to the imperialism described by Lenin is that of a context (with all the limitations, opportunities and pressures that come with any context) to what goes on inside it, and the same applies to the relation between Lenin's imperialism and American imperialism. The particular configurations, focus and favored points of view found in both contexts enable us to see and understand the most important conditions effecting the present. But not everything and certainly not enough. It is in order to bring into focus the specific relations, dynamic and contradictions that characterize the unique role that the U.S. has come to play in imperialism that I have suggested we think of the current period as a new stage, the American stage, of imperialism.

Like any new configuration of society and history, this one comes with advantages and disadvantages. As for advantages, I will mention just two. Placing the U.S. at the top of the heap all by itself enables us to view other capitalist countries not only as competitors of the U.S. (Lenin) but as victims, allbeit of a special sort, of U.S. domination. Clearly, both are true, but to the extent the latter grows and becomes more important, placing England, France, Japan, and the other advanced capitalist countries among the oppressed and exploited of the world—even one-sidedly, even provisionally—could shed new light on some of the dynamics we are witnessing. It would also help us understand the spread of American economic, political and cultural power into the entire world, including these countries, making them less and less likely to oppose U.S. policies (whose ultimate aim, of course, is capital accumulation, at least of that part of capital owned by American capitalists)." The same relations, viewed in this way, that is, as part of the stage of American imperialism, should also enable us to consider when and for what non-American capitalism can become part of the world-wide alliance against American imperialism. The French, German and Russian governments' qualified participation in the global movement against the war in Iraq offers one of the forms that this might take. None of this is meant to replace the competition between all national capitals that continues to exist as part of the overlapping context found in Lenin's version of imperialism.

The only other example I have time to mention is the special character and role of American nationalism, which we in the U.S. call "patriotism". Nationalism, as I said earlier, is the ideology appropriate to the stage of imperialism, but the American version of it has become something very special. There are few visitors to our country who have not been amazed by it. It is not only that it is stronger, more widespread and more irrational than the nationalism found in other countries, especially now that outright fascist regimes have disappeared, but that the role of symbols—like the flag, the anthem and the pledge of allegiance—and that of President in interpreting the meaning of these symbols has acquired an extraordinary importance, particularly in the process of legitimating American imperial policies.

The main reason for this is that the isolation, mutual indifference, competition—indeed all forms of social alienation—has developed much further in the U.S. than anywhere else. The result has been a hunger for community, for some kind of meaningful ties with other people, that no amount of internet dating can satisfy. Into this void steps the state with its promise of a new community based on our shared identity as citizens of the nation. But in a class divided society, the different classes of people relate to the state in different ways, with the ruling class making all important decisions and receiving the bulk of the benefits, even in those societies that have a democratic gloss. The result is that the national community is, in Marx's phrase, an "illusory community", and as such incapable of inspiring the love and loyalty that our rulers need people to feel toward it, given the strong and opposing pull that comes from their class interests. Incapable that is as long as people can see our national community for what it is, an illusory community, which in the nature of the case is not very difficult to do. So something had to be found to serve as blinders, and this is where the flag and the other symbols of the nation come it, except simply symbols, things that stand in for and point to the country, are not capable of blocking something as gross and as evident as the illusory character of our national community.

What appears to have happened is that what began as simply symbols for the country soon became fetishes (forms of the value Relation) as well. As fetishes, they embody some of the powers given up by people in the course of their alienated political activities as citizens in capitalist society. The result is that the flag, for example, not only symbolizes the country but substitutes for it as a basis for the community to which patriots believe they belong. In a recent letter to the New York Times, the writer spoke of his love "for our country and the flag for which it stands", and a front page headline in the New York Post around the same time announced that "Six Soldiers Die For The Flag". My point is that many Americans do die and make other great sacrifices for the flag and not for the country for which it stands, because for them the reverse is true: the country has come to stand for the flag. In short, the real community to which patriots belong is not one made up of relations between people based on who they are and what they do, but of relations each person has to the flag and only indirectly to each other through the attraction exercised by the flag, through accepting its powers over them, powers that they themselves have transferred to it. In this way, the illusory community in which people actually live, the state and its ruling class, easily escape the serious study that they so richly deserve. And since every fetish needs its shaman (the flag cannot talk), the state in the person of the President—unsullied by any class analysis—steps in to tell us what the flag would have us do on any given occasion.

Together with the fetishistic role of patriotic symbols, the privileged position of the American President as the interpreter of their meaning sets American nationalism apart from that of other peoples and gives the American ruling class a strong trump card in securing popular support for its imperialist policies. To be sure, many other countries have some of what has been described above. My point is that as the country with the most social alienation, the U.S. has more of it and that it plays a much bigger role here than elsewhere. Just how successful U.S. rulers will be in playing the patriotic card in the future is less easy to foresee now that our capitalists are showing their true comittment to the national interest by exporting more and more jobs to lower wage countries, with the result that the modest benefits American workers may have gained in the past through various imperialist ventures is coming (if it has not already come) to an end. This is but one of several important contradictions within the body of American imperialism that bears closer study, and the best way to do so—as I've argued—is to treat American imperialism as a stage within an overlapping imperialism just as the latter is viewed as a stage within an overlapping capitalism.


AH: There is another argument to this effect: U.S. imperialism gone crazy is another form of fascism. Do you see a relationship between U.S. imperialism and the possible rise of fascism today?

BO: If U.S. imperialism is crazy, it's crazy like a fox. Don't ever think otherwise, even of Bush. As for fascism, it is always a danger, especially when any national capitalist class feels threatened. This is not to say that there aren't a lot of fascists and potential fascists around all the time, but only that fascism gets the economic and political support it needs to succeed from the capitalist ruling class only when the latter have run out of other options to secure their interests. I don't think we are anywhere near that point in the U.S. today, but the danger remains, especially in the coming depression when the class struggle in America and around the world is certain to intensify.


AH: Do you think that imperialism turns out to be racist and that racism in turn turns out to be imperialist? Please comment on the possible relationships between imperialism and racism in the contemporary context.

BO: Capitalism is neither racist nor anti-racist. The game is capital accumulation which proceeds through every capitalist striving to maximize his profits. If racism helps, then it will be promoted. If it hinders this process, it will be fought. Overall, racism has helped as an effective way to divide the working class, and different capitalist classes have often promoted it for this purpose. Today, at least in the U.S. I see patriotism playing a bigger role in dividing and in holding back the workers than racism.


AH: How do you look at the role of the U.S. left in anti-imperialist struggles at this point? Also, please comment on the ongoing working-class movements in the U.S. today. How do those movements take up the question of imperialism? How do they relate the question of the increasing polarization of wealth and poverty between nations to the very polarization within nations as well?

BO: As for what is happening on the Left in U.S. today, there is a lot, though most of the activities are small and unconnected thematically, organizationally and geographically. The distaste and distrust for political parties that continues to haunt most American radicals takes its toll in the poor coordination of such events. Most of my own political involvement has been with various radical academic caucuses ( there is one in practically every discipline—an alliance of about 20 of them was established last year), and with several radical academic journals (there must be over 20 such in the U.S. and the U.K.) My impression is that, along with the student movement, these caucuses and journals have both begun to grow after reaching a low point several years ago.

Unfortunately, I'm out of time, so I can't explore this important topic any further, but I hope that my answers to the rest of the interview have given you and your readers enough to mull over that you will forgive me for running through the last three questions as quickly as I have.


AH: What are your current projects and plans? We'd be happy if you kindly share them with us. Thanks very much for your time and support, Professor Ollman.

BO: What am I up to now? In brief—I am finishing articles on patriotism and the importance of class analysis in ecology, and a book on communism, which emphasizes the methods Marx used to study the communist future inside the capitalist present. I have also set up a web site—bertellollman.com or dialectics.com - on which I have placed a great deal of my writing. Readers are invited to drop in and take a look.