Re: [OPE] On Rereading Lenin's Imperialism: A Rejoinder [Cyrus Bina's Response to Paula Cerni's post]

From: John Milios <>
Date: Tue Jan 19 2010 - 14:20:44 EST

On reading Lenin’s Imperialism: Some thoughts regarding Cyrus Bina’s

Dear all,

The point made by Cyrous is interesting and it deserves our attention
not only because it endeavours to put forward a Marxian interpretation
of contemporary capitalism but also because it hints at an analytical
problematic that retains many followers. His argument can be
summarized as follows:
(1) Lenin’s (and Bukharin’s) theory of imperialism belongs to a
particular stage of capitalism which is now behind us. In other words,
Lenin was right once, but not anymore.
(2) In contemporary capitalism, capital is transnationalized in all
its forms; thus, in this unified social relation, the system is not
only beyond the colonial era but also beyond the borders of the
(3) This conclusion is connected with the concept of ‘competition’ in
Marx: competition increases and explodes with globalization of
(4) In the epoch of globalization all imperialist actions and policies
are doomed to failure even before they are materialized.

Of course there are many things that can be argued concerning the
above “historicist”, according to our view, approach. For a more
comprehensive critique of it one can go through our book on
imperialism (“Rethinking Imperialism: A Study of Capitalism Rule,”
2009, Palgrave Macmillan). We pretty much share Bina’s attempt to
revisit Marx’s ouvrier in order to comprehend modern capitalism. Yet,
our conclusions are quite different. In what follows we shall present
them in brief.

Classical theories of imperialism (the latter embrace all the basic
theoretical moments of Marxist discussion on imperialism and
capitalist crisis, formulated in the years 1909-1925 – after the
publication of Hobson’s book Imperialism – above all the approaches of
Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin and Lenin) constitute an
interpretation of Marxist theory that is more in the character of a
revision than further development. Yet, there are important aspects in
Lenin’s argumentation that represent a rupture with the classical
discourse on imperialism (a rapture insofar as the classical discourse
comprises a paradigm shift as regards Marx’s analysis).

The classical approaches to imperialism (with few exceptions,
basically reflecting, besides the vacillations of Lenin, some aspects
of Bukharin’s intervention, we shall return to this issue) shared a
common conviction that capitalism has undergone radical and structural
transformations, with the result that Marx’s analysis is no longer
sufficient for a comprehensive description of it. In other words, it
was asserted that the ‘latest phase of capitalism’ of the era of
Hilferding was not exactly the capitalism of Marx’s Das Kapital.

Hence, despite the controversies among them, it is possible to
summarize their shared immanent logic as follows. Production is
internationalized. Individual ‘national’ capitals develop on a
geographical terrain that greatly transcends national borders. The
state in developed capitalist countries provides geopolitical support
through (colonial) imperialism for the international movement of
capital. Capitalism becomes a global system; that is to say the ‘laws’
of the system now operate on a world scale.

In the light of the above findings, Bina’s conception of a globalized
capitalism with unified social relations across the world (accompanied
by retreating nation-states) is not new and to a significant extend
has been already set forth by classical approaches. Of course, there
are striking differentiations, but the general problematic remains the

Classical approaches to imperialism were based on a profound rejection
of Marx’s conceptualization of ‘competition’. According to Marx, the
immanent causal regularities (‘laws’) of the capitalist system apply
at the level of the capitalist economy and society as a whole, from
where they are imposed as ‘incentives’ on the individual constituent
elements of this economy. The notion which corresponds to the overall
causal relationships of capitalist production is social capital
(Gesamtkapital). In another formulation, the immanent causal
relationships governing the capitalist economy transform the totality
of enterprises (‘individual capitals’, in Marx’s terminology) into
elements of social capital, i.e. they situate them within an economic
system, which then exercises a conditioning influence on them. It is
in this way, according to Marx, that capital constitutes a
historically specific social relation of exploitation and domination:
“this is the form in which capital becomes conscious of itself as a
social power” (K. Marx, CAPITAL, Vol. 3, Penguin Classics, p. 297).
Free competition in Marx’s conception ensures the reciprocal
engagement, peculiar to the capitalist system, of institutionally
independent production units, imposing on the respective capitals the
laws of capitalist production. Competition makes it possible for the
separate capitalist enterprises, the individual capitals, to
constitute themselves and function as social capital. Through their
structural interdependence, that is to say their organization as
social capital, the individual capitals proclaim themselves a social
class: they function as a uniform social force counterposing itself
to, and dominating, labour.

What is important in the above insights, is that they point to the
unity of the bourgeois class and so to the capitalist state, whose
ultimate purpose is to secure the long-term strategic interest of the
bourgeoisie. In other words, what Marx really says to us is that
between the national state and the individual capital that is deployed
on its territory there is thus formed a relationship of interiority
and correspondence. In Marx’s conception ‘politics’ is inherent in the
‘economy’ through a complex dialectic that is both determined and
over-determined. The state is neither a neutral tool nor an autonomous
entity into which a parasitical bureaucracy supposedly undertakes to
inject uniformity. Capital does not come up against an external state
power that is threatening to it, nor does it confront a state power
that simply seeks to protect it. The relationship of ‘interiority’
between state and capital represents a twofold condition. On the one
hand it precludes the self-diffusion of statist linkages into a global
‘empire’ that purportedly supervises homogeneously global economic
structures. On the other hand it prevents capital that moves beyond
the national borders from retaining a ‘certificate of origin’.

In contrast to what is widely accepted, i.e. in contrast to all
varieties of the thesis that imperialism, globalization, empire, new
imperialism, dependence etc. etc. result in a relation of
ONE: Regardless all legal forms (which ascribe to the one individual
capital the 'character' of being 'foreign', to the other that of being
'public' and to the third the character of being 'national'), all
individual capitals functioning in a given territory (a territory of
national currency, homogenized legal and institutional framework of
social reproduction etc.) function as constituent elements of the
SOCIAL CAPITAL of the given capitalist social formation.

We find Bina’s reading of Marx’s concept of competition misleading. In
fact, what he actually has in common with the classical Marxist
theories is the rejection of the Marxian concept of social capital.
This is an important differentiation from Marx’s analysis.

In order to understand contemporary capitalism we need a Marxian
conception of the state, along with the concept of the imperialist
chain, which was formulated by Lenin in a specific political
conjuncture. This opens up a fertile theoretical terrain in an
endeavour to extend the Marxian problematic. Lenin introduced the idea
of the imperialist chain to defend the idea of national
self-determination and to counter the analyses of ‘global capitalism’
that were then predominant on the Left.

It is true that many theoreticians nowadays have lost faith to the
state acknowledging new supranational forms of political management or
governmentality. In Foucauldean terms, this might mean that the
nation-state is not any more capable of governing; hence, new
(post-modern) forms of sovereignty should be utilized for the
organization of the relations that exist between power and its
governmentality. In this line of argument, Hardt and Negri (among
other post-modern systematizations, of course) announce a new global
form of sovereignty as a “series of national and supranational
organisms united under a single logic of rule” (Hardt and Negri,
EMPIRE 2000, p. xii). Alternatively, in Gramscian terms one might
argue that the concept of ‘historic bloc’ should start being explained
in the global level because ‘global production and global finance now
constitute distinct spheres of power relations which constrain the
state system at least as much as they are influenced by it’ (Cox,
1999, Approaches to World Order, Cambridge University Press, p. 515).

Yet, a Marxian approach needs to draw upon the notion of imperialist
chain as this concept is formulated in accordance with Marx’s concept
of social capital and his theory of the capitalist mode of production.
It thus defends the thesis that internal-national relationships and
processes always have priority over international relations. It is
precisely the fundamental discovery of Marxism that the class struggle
(which is at the same time economic, political and ideological and is
thus consummated within each national-state entity) is the driving
force of history. It is through these class correlations and relations
of domination that international relations, with all the concomitant
interdependence on other social formations, take effect. If
imperialism is a permanent possibility emerging out of the structures
of the capitalist mode of production, the historical form it will
ultimately acquire for a particular social formation depends on the
way in which the “external” situation (that is to say the
international correlation of forces) over-determines but also
constrains the practices that emerge out of the evolution of the
internal class correlations.

Hence, before speculating on contemporary “events” of capitalism
worldwide we should attempt to describe the structure of the
imperialist chain. The latter has two arguable consequences.

On one hand, it is the terrain on which a variety of national
strategies, often contradictory and incontestably unequal in power,
are constituted. These strategies are linked to the interests of each
individual social capital (collective capitalist) and play a mutually
complementary role in the state’s ‘internal functioning’ (often
contributing to the organization of bourgeois hegemony). These
strategies will never radically draw into question the global flows of
commodities and capital, that is to say the capitalist nature of the
international economic sphere. They will simply demand different
versions of the terms on which the game must be played. In any case
the global market is inextricably associated with the capital
relation. The contribution it makes to its reproduction is dramatic.
The antagonism in question is that between the various national social
capitals, which certainly has a potent political aspect. Indeed to the
extent that military power is a distillation, and a guarantor, of all
political power, this competition is also metamorphosed into military
competition (of various forms). States play an important role, without
that meaning that they are autonomous bearers of sovereignty whose
sphere of influence also extends beyond their borders. In this sense
the interpretation of imperialism that we propose embraces the dynamic
of geopolitical antagonisms, defining the terms within which it
manifests itself, which are ultimately subordinated to the evolution
of class antagonisms.

On the other hand, the complex game within the parameters of the
imperialist chain also operates reflexively when it comes to its
effect on the links. Here we are dealing with the other side of the
same coin. A concept borrowed from Smith’s analysis may well help us
arrive at a better description of this process: in particular the
concept of the invisible hand. The unequal links in the imperialist
chain have in common a certain shared strategic interest: reproduction
of the capitalist system of domination. However great the sharpening
of the geopolitical or economic conflicts they will never on their own
go so far as to reverse this constant. The chain must be reproduced as
capitalist. Every state as it delineates its strategy in the
international area, that is to say on a terrain where all correlations
are in flux, contributes in the final analysis to the reproduction of
capitalism. Striving to promote its ‘national’ interest, in other
words, it helps to reproduce capitalism as a stable relationship of

Just as society and economy is not the mere ‘sum of individual
actions’, the imperialist chain is not the ‘sum’ or the resultant
outcome of the ‘actions’ of individual states, but the terrain of
expanded reproduction of capitalist rule, which is, however, in the
last instance determined by class struggle in each capitalist social
formation. Moreover, as the character of the chain is complex and
unequal, often the national interest of capitalist superpowers entails
‘duties’ that are crucial for the reproduction of global capitalist
order. For example, it is nowadays commonplace for the role of the
United States to be described as imperial precisely because of this
fact. We are therefore obliged to distance ourselves from two distinct
theoretical excesses. There is no global empire that is ‘in control’
of every state structure. Not even the United States is anything like
that. Of course for a variety of reasons the USA embodies a global
hegemony that is also expressed through the capacities of its military
machine and is necessary for the extended reproduction of the
long-term interests of all the bourgeoisies of developed capitalism.
The Western alliance, with the USA in the leading role, defending the
specific national interests of its social capitals, is at the same
time pursuing a hegemonic project for all capitalist states.

We still live in the epoch of imperialism, if imperialism is to be
comprehended as described above. In this epoch all imperialist actions
and policies served in the final analysis the reproduction of the
capitalist rule worldwide. In this sense, the only authentic ‘empire’
is the imperialist chain in its entirety.

John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos

On Fri, Jan 15, 2010 at 9:28 PM, Jerry Levy <> wrote:
> On Rereading Lenin’s Imperialism: A Rejoinder
> Dear Jerry,
> Let me take this opportunity to wish you and wish all of colleagues and friends on the list a healthy and happy New Year. My sabbatical year (2008-2009) was back-breaking but fairly productive. And as soon as I wanted breathe a little the Iranian pot has begun to boils with no let up and of course with never-ending heartbreaks. I am still working on the issues surrounding the new development in Iran, and thus wish to remain off the list for another semester. The counter-comment below is not an off-the-cuff but an intended response. I am grateful to Paula Cerni for her brave and feisty challenge and the opportunity provided by OPE-L to me to respond. I wish that when one reads my post-election Iran (a result of cumulative decades of theoretical contributions to Marxist theory and nearly 4 decades of political activism) one gives oneself adequate time and thought to go through all pertinent references (and arguments), including my previous work (nearly 40 pieces are referenced here) and other numerous refere
nces that both theoretically and empirically frame the plethora of issues surrounding the epoch of imperialism. I don’t wish to reinvent the wheel anytime I tend to respond to a tiny question or misinterpretation.
> Comradely,
> CB
> Supporters of the so-called classic theory of imperialism, it seems, do not share the same politics as Ms. Paula Cerni tells me in her e-mail—following her comment on my recent article: (Cyrus Bina, Post-Election Iran: Crossroads to History and a Critique of Prevailing Political  Perspectives). But, as scholars on this magnificent list should know, sticking to this epochal concept (without having a faintest theoretical understanding about its genealogy in Marx) has created an embarrassing, if not entirely reactionary, scapegoat for many on the radical left where it comes to its today’s application. And in my recent travel and lecture series in the United Kingdom over issues on post-election Iran and US foreign policy, I find it hard to believe that the majority of the traditional left, more or less, had taken a favorite position toward the paramilitary government of Ahmadinejad in post-election Iran. Here in the US, certa
in self-proclaimed Marxists, say, in Monthly Review (New York) had already thrown out the anti-fascist and forthright tradition of their magnificent founders to the toilet bowl and, in conjunction with providing an outlet to propaganda by habitual opportunists (including the known agents of the Islamic Republic in the United States) defended this atrocious, anti-women, anti-worker, and anti-democratic regime in Iran. This is one hell of a practice (as Ms Cerni’s updating of the theory of imperialism would imply) to call Ahmadinejad an anti-imperialist, as its analogue. And, as I have tried to show in this piece (and my previous work), the lack of adequate methodological insight (see, among others, my 2006 in the International Journal of Political Economy and 2007 Global Economy Journal) on the one hand, and the complexities associated with our present epoch (particularly, the US posture and the posture of several different Pax Americana, pre-Pax Americana, and pre-pre-Pax Americana entities, such manifold
‘fundamentalisms’ in terms of Islamic, Christian, Jewish, etc.) on the other hand, seemingly wreaked havoc with an entire spectrum of the left—from the very liberal to the very unbending doctrinaire today. Therefore, in this confused and confusing global environment, following the law of average, eclecticism and adopting an “intermediate” position become easily an order of the day.
> With this preamble, I wish to briefly take issue with Ms. Cerni who started out to comment on my piece by saying:
> Bina's article on Iran, which I read with great interest, fits rather well with the discussion we were just having on imperialism. I find myself in an intermediate position between his views and those of the radical left he criticizes…. [M]y view is that the classical theory of imperialism needs to be updated rather than thrown out altogether; it seems to me that Bina is himself attacking what is only an inflexible, dogmatic interpretation of that theory (Paula Cerni, “Theory of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century,” Theory & Science, 2006).
> First, in this debate, Ms. Cerni identifies her position as an “intermediate,” and then rushes to the judgment that as if I am “attacking what is only an inflexible, dogmatic interpretation of that theory.”  Well. She is right to identify her position as intermediate—i.e. eclectic; but she is entirely wrong in the interpretation of my position. I am adamantly against any position, eclectically (read journalistically, unmethodically, etc.) or otherwise, which extends Lenin’s (and by implication, Bukharin’s) theory of imperialism (i.e., an epoch-bound theory dealing with a specific period of capitalism) to our present epoch.  The present epoch we live in, capital (as a social relation) is transnationalized in all its forms and thus in this unified social relations the system is not only beyond the colonial era but also beyond the borders of the nation-states—the nation-states that are already transformed rather qualitatively beyond the Lenin’s era. This conclusion is systematically connec
ted with competition in Marx, wherein capitalism progresses from its infancy toward its maturity and competition increases and explodes with globalization of capital. This position (i.e. Marx’s position and similarly my own position and the position of other pioneering Marxist scholars, such as John Weeks, Anwar Shaikh, Ben Fine) allowed me to develop a complete value theory for the global oil sector (i.e., from its cartelization through its de-cartelization and globalization) whose theoretical and empirical validity has yet remained intact. And if one can speak of capitalist completion (albeit in the presence of unremitting concentration and centralization of capital) in this heavily “integrated” sector, one may have easier time to speak of competition in other sectors across the globe at this stage.
> Ms. Cerni kindly sent her 2006 article in Theory & Science, entitled: “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.”  And—while due to my commitment to several different projects, plus post-election Iran, I do not wish to go through it line-by-line, nevertheless I have found it interesting but realized that why we’re still passing each other on the issue involved and what’s wrong with this—to put it in Ben Fine’s apt phrase uttered in another occasion—“dialogue of the deaf.” It appears that she is coming from a theoretical foundation in international relations, known as Realist or Realism—which to me is not “realist” at all. Yet, she is realist enough to go back to Bukharin (safer name in bourgeois circle, although as significant and remarkable on the subject). My theoretical core, however, comes from political economy based on Marx’s and the empirical investigations surrounding its historical and theoretical validity. That is why I expected to see discussions on Marx’s value the
ory and certainly recognition of the transnationalization of capital in Cerni’s piece. Here, I think the methodological significance of why Lenin’s—(or Bukharin’s, given the fact that Lenin himself wrote a nice introduction to it)—simultaneous conditions, such division of the world among: (1) great powers, (2) capitalist monopolies and trusts, (3) export of capital, etc., are lost in translation, so to speak.
> There are numerous issues involved here, but let me refer to a paragraph from Cerni’s article on the issues that’s taken for granted, for instance on the centrality of nation-state and the role of American hegemony, focusing on the diminishing US capacity in production of “immaterial” production.
> The dominance of these ‘post-material’ sectors – a symptom, as we will see, of imperialist decay - has fostered the illusion that they constitute independent engines of growth3. Thus, there has been no convincing Marxist critique of Daniel Bell’s (1999) and Joseph Nye’s (2002) argument that the IT revolution can bring about a new American century. Indeed, many left-leaning authors have expressed their own fascination with a Western-based capitalism that, instead of a material relation between people, appears as a collection of immaterial flows of information and de-materialized personal relationships (Ibid.).
> I am not a stranger to the above-mentioned literature and to discussions by certain individuals on both sides of the so-called debates on the new American century. Indeed, at the inception of some of these arguments and counter-arguments, I was a first-hand observer. The difficulty with all these arguments is two-fold: (1) that the protagonists in these debates have a partial view of the world, yet when from time-to-time awakened by harsh realities and facts on the ground, they convince themselves over a Martini or two to redesign a foreign policy based on an “intermediate” framework, which includes, for instance, a soft-power/hard-power (read good-cop/bad-cop) configuration, and (2) that they do not have a clue whatsoever that a reductionist interpretations of (US) hegemony (often erroneously attributed to Antonio Gramsci) does not get them anywhere, so far as the US foreign policy is concerned. Let me repeat myself for a thousandth time: Hegemony is not the same as domination. Allow me not to reinven
t the wheel here, again and again. Those who are interested in my work may read through nearly 40 articles footnoted to my post-election Iran. Not to mention, I have also made my position known against other approaches, such as the taken by Giovanni Arrigi’s, Davis Harvey’s (the so-called New Imperialism), and others whose method of analysis does not allow them to let go of the contingencies of “access” and “territory,” in order to see clearly through the synthesis of the social relations today.
> Consequently, when I say that the post-hegemonic/post-Pax Americana coincides with the epoch of globalization of capital in which Imperialism (as an epoch—not as an act or a policy) is over, I mean that, in general, all imperialist actions and foreign policy postures are doomed at their inception. The last word, inception, is of major significance, since these actions and policies are doomed to failure even before they are being materialized. Ms. Cerni tends to persuade us to “update” the theory of imperialism with the contemporary facts. She does not realize that this theory is epochal in its entirety as its shelf value has already expired. Besides, on the pure logical level, Ms. Cerni attempts to prove a theory whose premise (read Cerni’s article, particularly repeated references to Bukharin’s production relations, etc.) appears to be incomplete and even contradictory, thus creating a position that is symptomatic of the classic case of Russell’s Paradox. Imperialism, as dogmatically argued by
 some, is not “the highest stage of capitalism.” It’s not even a complete capitalism as far as the inclusion of great bulk of humanity within the capitalist system is concerned.
> At the same time, speaking rather casually about the so-called sphere of influence is a sheer tautology. The main question is how the development of material conditions, in conjunction with social relations, would come to transform the world in an organic sense. Of course, there are political and ideological contingencies that, like anything else in concrete history, are neither predictable nor preventable. That is why Marx speaks of the laws as tendencies, and it is within such tendencies that (capitalist) development or (capitalist) underdevelopment of a country comes to play. In the interrelated world a reductionist notion of “sphere of influence” is often being invalidated by the seeming political contingencies and disappointments, as Iraq, Afghanistan, and presently Pakistan has demonstrated to us so far. Yet, there is a consistent pattern of failure on the part of US policy on all these fronts that is far from contingent and rather distinctly epochal—and I would grantee on the any other such fr
onts in the future. Let me reproduce the paragraph by Ms. Cerni, which is also seemingly used as a weapon of choice (in this case very bad choice!), inaccurately portray me as being close to “Third Worldist” paradigm. Yet, for someone like me who has been from the pioneers of the transnationalization of capital (and among a very few who, independently, coined the world “Globalization” in the early 1970s) it’ is astonishingly hard to decipher. Let’s listen to her explicit point:
> Today we still have a mixture of direct and indirect means, with the latter being far more common. Spheres of influence - often overlapping each other - have mostly, but not completely, replaced colonial empires. I don't think this change invalidates the theory of imperialism, any more than Marx's theory of capitalism is invalidated by the undeniable fact that capitalism today is not exactly the same as it was in the nineteenth century. However, if we update our analysis in this way, then we have to honestly admit what is clear to anyone with a minimum knowledge of world affairs - namely, that it doesn't only apply to the 'Western' nations. Iran, for example, also has a sphere of influence. Curiously enough Bina doesn't seem to be aware of this, and in this respect he is much closer to the 'Third Worldist' paradigm than he realizes (Ibid.).
> I would respectfully urge Ms. Cerni to look at the world strategically and in a long-run framework, and recognize the internalizing of forces that are rather cumulatively conveyed by the transnationalization process. Recognition of the nation-state is a fact of life, but relying on it as a unit of analysis would not take us far. Let us, when speak of Marx, we look at his method of analysis and argue for (or against) the validity and relevance of his value theory (as Sweezy did rather bravely but, alas, wrongly!) and refrain from focusing on nonsensical argument (e.g., by pro-Ahmadinejad radicals) of his belongingness to the 19th century—or similarly of Bina’s national origin as an identity with Third Worldism. Let us not to change the conversation in order to upstage the 20th-century Lenin (or Bukharin) as relevant to our present epoch. To be sure, Lenin’s (and Bukharin’s) theory of imperialism belongs to a particular stage of capitalism which is now behind us. However, Marx’s manifold theory, pa
rticularly his theory of competition—(please do not identify it as “free competition” marketed in bourgeois textbooks or in the so-called Realist literature in international relations, cited in Ms. Cerni’ paper)—is now more than anytime relevant to the contemporary global economy and polity.  Here, as I said in my previous writings, “one cannot be a little pregnant” where it comes to methodology, particularly Marxist methodology. AS I have shown briefly in my piece on Post-Election Iran (2009), Lenin does not even recognize the meaning of rent in Marx’s sense, thus he also stumbles on the significance of Marx’s competition.
> Finally, the so-called Iran’s sphere of influence, alluded to by Ms. Cerni, is not separate from the US foreign policy, which in turn itself reflects the predicament of US socio-economic/socio-political situation—in the post-Pax Americana/ post-hegemonic America—which then inevitably in circular mode takes us back to the epoch of globalization. This is a clumsy tautological oversight—a cardinal sin of in methodological proportion that is common in the international relations literature today. I wish to encourage colleagues on this list to read Ms. Cerni’s article critically and find for yourselves:
> Respectfully,
> Cyrus Bina
> January 13, 2010
> _______________________________________________
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