L. Trotsky’s Theory of Imperialism and the Universal Crisis of Capitalism

V. Serebryakov


Below we present a report submitted to a special session of the Leningrad section of the Institute of Economics of the Communist Academy in 1932 which was devoted to an analysis of the Trotskyite conception of imperialism. The value of the report given here is that it illumines the inextricable connections between the social-democratic understanding of imperialism and the allied notion of ‘decolonisation’ which underlay the thinking of both Kautsky and Trotsky and which are separated by a chasm from the theories of Lenin and Stalin. It is apparent that neither Kautsky nor Trotsky accepted that imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of the monopolies. The author of this article, V. Serebryakov, delineates in detail the rejection by Trotsky of the Leninist theory of imperialism and shows that the ideas of Trotsky are directly derived from the right-wing social-democratic notions of imperialism of Karl Kautsky, Karl Renner, Rudolf Hilferding, and Nikolai Bukharin. For Kautsky and others imperialism represents a specific political tendency, the aspiration of capitalism to stop the existence of small governments. By this reasoning the colonial system of imperialism, comprising of a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world in the colonial and dependent countries, is a political policy of capitalism. Imperialism itself is projected as a progressive tendency which builds a human economy on a world scale. It follows from this that once a colonial country is granted ‘political independence’ the metropolitan power no longer may be considered as imperialist and the ‘former colony’, despite its being still subjected to strangulation by the financial oligarchies of the metropolis, is no longer a colonial-type economy.

In tandem with the Kautskyite understanding of imperialism is the propagation of ‘decolonisation’ notions by which under conditions of imperialism and in the absence of a thoroughgoing democratic revolution finance capitalism was promoting ‘unbridled industrialisation’ in the colonial countries and ending the pre-capitalist forms, rather than in actuality retarding the development of the productive forces. Trotsky way back in the interbellum period argued that India was approaching the industrial level of Great Britain. Supporters of the ‘decolonisation’ theses in the Russian opposition in the same years argued that the Prussian path of development had led to the development of capitalism in Iran, China and India forgetting that capitalism in Prussian agriculture had developed in conditions where Prussia was among the three leading industrial powers in the world. While China became an industrial power after the 1949 revolution, elsewhere industrialization (production of the means of production) has yet to take place in countries such as South Africa, Brazil and India. As a consequence such countries preserve the survivals of feudalism and pre-capitalism and are prevented from the establishment of independent economic development.

The ‘theory’ of ‘permanent revolution’ then demands not the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal democratic revolution as the preliminary stage but the direct establishment of workers’ power in the colonial countries. What is the contemporary significance of all this?

Trotskyism as an ideological trend has little or no direct influence in the revolutionary movement in the colonial-type countries such as India except amongst the older social-democratic parties which have traditionally advocated the socialist revolution. The views of the RSP or the SUCI which were established in 1948 were founded on the rejection of the Leninist understanding of imperialism and the colonial question and the acceptance of the notions of Kautsky and Trotsky with the end result that India in their view had become ‘independent’ in 1947 and that it was necessary to orientate towards ‘socialist revolution’. (Such views of ‘socialist revolution’, ‘proletarian revolution’, or ‘new proletarian revolution’ have also been revived by the thin reformist layers which broke with the Marxist understanding on the colonial question in the 1980s and which were inspired immediately by the views of Ram Nath, Moni Guha and others. These writers directly repeated ad nauseam the arguments of Trotsky and his supporters on the colonial question of the earlier decades).

The CPSU (b) in its discussion with the CPI leadership in 1951 had stressed the semi-colonial character of India whilst Stalin himself had argued that India remained an English colony. Such understandings were reversed after 1953. Mikoyan at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 chided the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow for its studies on the financial dependence of India on imperialist capital. This presaged the new Soviet understanding that countries which were dependent on finance capital could be regarded as ‘independent’. This was an enormous victory for the ideology of Kautsky and Trotsky on the colonial question. The new

Soviet notions were warmly greeted by the CPI. Ajoy Ghosh from 1953 itself on a visit to Moscow had argued with a hostile Suslov that India had secured ‘independence’ in 1947. Within the CPI Parimal Dasgupta and others from 1953 itself then were compelled to begin struggle inside the CPI to retain the Marxist positions on the colonial question. This continued this fight continued in the criticism of the CPI M draft programme which had been adumbrated by Basavapunnaiah. After 1953 the CPI and the CPI M with varying emphases adopted the social-democratic understanding of the nature of imperialism and the ‘decolonisation’ process to deny the semi-colonial and semi-feudal character of Indian society despite the great expansion of metropolitan finance capital in the country after 1947. The path of capitalist development after 1947 while not constructing an industrial system in the country nonetheless developed a medium level of capitalist development. The modification of semi-feudal landlordism and the strengthening of the thin kulak stratum has been presented as the establishment of capitalism in agriculture; while the industrial developments under the second and third five-year plans which have not actually resulted in the construction of the basis of industry, the production of machinery by machinery, have been painted as ‘industrialisation’ and so on. The perpetuation of the relations of finance capital and the semi-colonies mean that while a certain degree of industrial development takes in the colonial countries none of the countries which are considered ‘developed’, whether Brazil, South Africa or India have yet to incept the production of the means of production which Marx in Capital considered to be the essential feature which demarcated the industrial system from the manufacturing period.

The paper of V. Serebriakov on the defence of Leninism in relation to the understanding of Trotsky of the phenomenon of imperialism and the colonial question, despite all the intervening economic changes, retains its value for the evaluation of the contemporary world.

Vijay Singh

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