Lenin’s Colonial Question in the 21st Century
“Lenin’s Colonial Question in the 21st Century” is a paper contributed by Max Ajl to the LENIN ONLINE, a series of Internet-based presentations organized by ILPS Philippines and BAYAN to commemorate Lenin’s 150th birth anniversary. The paper was recorded live and aired in Episode 2, posted on 18 April 2020. Episode 2 may be viewed on Youtube by clicking on this link.
Max Ajl is an associated researcher at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and writes on rural development. His book, A People’s Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto Press in 2021, and he is on twitter @maxajl
Lenin’s Colonial Question in the 21st Century
By MAX AJL
When Lenin published his “Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” his aim was political: looking towards victory and searching out an organic fusion between theory and practice, he meant to set a line for burning and desperate international struggle. He saw as clear as day that although sometimes the new political order put in place formal equality between nation-states, substantive inequality, the “colonial and financial enslavement of the vast majority of the world’s population” endured. Lenin’s theses are inseparable historically and politically from his book, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. It outlined a historical moment of accumulation: “Modern monopolist capitalism on a world-wide scale.” His theses drew out that pattern’s political consequences for Communist cadres.
How and why do these theses matter today? What should we take from them, as people trying to change the world? We are now frequently told that the world has surpassed Leninist ideas. We have broken with the old division of humanity based on colonial enslavement and looting. Instead, global accumulation is marked by a series of new and “contradictory” patterns which make the old stodgy modes of analysis irrelevant, if not so much fog clouding up our analytical lenses. Such new realities include: (1) Post-colonial economic development and decolonization; (2) the rise of China and the so-called BRICS, and competing and equal imperialisms; (3) an international or transnational bourgeoisie; (4) the decentralization of accumulation; (5) the emergence of ever-more “sub-imperialisms.” All these phenomena, some of them cooked up in the mad-hatter workshop of Western Marxism, and some of them realities, are not just descriptions of the world. To the extent they are social science fiction, they confuse, disorganize, and deter revolutionary thought and practice. They are used to suggest that the most basic ordering principle which Lenin outlined – that in terms of accumulation and political practice, Communists lived in a divided world – is irrelevant to political practice in the twenty-first century. And they are used to demonize and erase nationalism as a grammar for anti-systemic struggle.
In what follows, I discuss the core of Lenin’s thought concerning the colonial question, why it remains relevant, and what needs updating in order to address central questions of internationalism of today and tomorrow. First, what was Lenin’s core thesis concerning “the colonial question”? He was clear: “The enslavement of the world’s population by an insignificant minority of the richest and advanced capitalist countries.” This, however, was a modification, a supplement, to an even more elemental distinction: between “oppressed, dependent, and subject nations” on the one hand, and the “oppressing, exploiting, and sovereign nations.”
While the first way he described the colonial question would at a glance limit it to a certain political period, the apex of colonialism when Asia, Africa, and for that matter the Fourth World of indigenous peoples were subject to colonial division, looting, and genocide, the second separation lays out what was really important for Lenin at that moment: development was uneven. The world-system was uneven. And that within an uneven world-system, even formally independent states could also be vassals and subjects. They could be, in his words, “politically independent” yet “wholly dependent” upon imperialist powers, “economically, financially and militarily.” Imperialism was a relationship of power and powerlessness, not reducible to specific mechanisms of domination.
In this respect, we should be clear that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was built on the bedrock of that fundamental and unchanging historical reality, marked by uneven development on a world-scale, and the colonial division of humanity. However, Lenin’s theory meant to map a certain historical landscape: the peak of European colonialism, the division of territories amongst a set of trusts, and rising monopoly capitalism sweeping over the globe.
Politically, Lenin made clear that this division of humanity and of the international Communist movement, at least in aspiration, imposed distinct but complementary tasks on radical struggle in the core and the periphery. In the latter, revolutionaries should seek as much as possible to combine the fight for internal redistribution with the fight for national liberation. In the former, Lenin urged a different political fight. The workers’ and Communist movements were split. For that reason, he was in a desperate and enduring battle against opportunism: the tendency of a certain segment of workers and even more so of the intelligentsia to support their national bourgeoisie as they grabbed ever-larger chunks of the wealth of humanity. For Lenin, this was not an irrational mistake or deviation by those workers or their intellectuals. Instead, it was the output of material interests, as some workers understood them and as passed through the prism of the political practice of opportunist politicians and intelligentsia. That material interest was privileged access to the labor and goods produced by humanity, which appeared under capitalism as the distribution of super-profits from the dominated to the dominating nations, and then their internal distribution within the oppressing nation: unequally, of course, but also with some cut to the elite of the workers. In this sense, Lenin urged we take a materialist analysis to the recurring tendency, political and theoretical, to keep the class struggle within the confines of reformism, and furthermore, to downplay or ignore imperialism as a permanent and structuring element of historical capitalism.
Once this distinction is in clear view, post-Leninist critiques which misunderstand the political rootedness of Leninist thought and practice should evaporate. First, it is clear that no one can credibly claim that the basic distinction which Lenin drew out, that of oppressor and oppressed nations, has shifted based on relative control over global wealth. The presence of Brazilian or South African billionaires does not make Brazil or South Africa empires. Nor does decolonization matter here from the perspective of revolutionary organizing in the core, since decolonization co-exists with continued subordination or dependence – the source of the dependencia school which emerged in Latin America and the Arab world to explain uneven accumulation on a world scale. Decolonization, instead, ought to be seen as a necessary but insufficient achievement for carrying out national-popular development. Sovereignty, then, the harvest of the expulsion of the imperialists, remains an achievement to be defended at all costs.
In what follows, I make four points based on these understandings of the division of nations, opportunism, and the national question. One, imperialism remains a central ordering principle of capitalism. Two, we are at a moment of high noon of opportunism, amidst systematic and well-funded attempts to erase the fundamental and ongoing distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations; three, the high tide of revolutionary activity in the last 20 years has been precisely articulated through national-popular discourses; and four, the central arena of revolutionary struggle and socialist construction in the twenty-first century remains the land question and the peasant question.
Let us begin with the first point. To build on Lenin, we should be clear on what was conjunctural and what was essential in his analysis, or what was specific to describing domination in a given historical moment, and what was the key relationship he wished to understand. The presence of formal colonialism, or the primacy of investments, was not the core of imperialism. Rather, the distinction between dominating and dominated nations, those nations which were sovereign and those which were not, those nations which restricted the freedom of others and those nations which contained so many who had their freedom restricted, was essential. In value-theoretic terms, the key element is continuous value-flows between dominated and dominating countries, such that the former bleed out value and the latter soak it up. The consequence is uneven development.
The manifestations or mechanisms of value-outflow take on many forms. They include brain-drain, through which the people of the periphery produce and train doctors, engineers, and nurses with their land, wheat, care, and sweat, only to see those people effectively become part of northern accumulation once they have developed the needed skills. Or debt payments, which can only be secured by hard currency, which means selling off the fruits of the labor of the periphery. Or returns on foreign investments, wherein northern capital directly exploits or super-exploits southern workers and the wealth of southern lands.
Another major mechanism, not discussed in Lenin’s day, was the privilege of dollar seigniorage, or that other countries hold massive US dollar and treasury reserves, since the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Yet another is unequal exchange, or the exchange of commodities below their value through price suppression, which can occur by monopoly pricing or buying power by those with more leverage in the value chain. This ensures that while countries in the South may industrialize, this is not the same as popular development, since so-called “value-added” processes primarily occur amongst the northern service sector. A Chinese worker makes the iPhone, the Chinese and Malaysian ecologies are laid waste by mineral extraction and refining, those working in advertising firms in the US make high salaries, and profit remains in the hands of Apple and local Chinese sub-contractors. Or the prices of coffee, tea, and bananas, are kept low. This is not because countries like Indonesia, India, or the isthmus republics of Central America are just “specializing in their comparative advantage,” but because any attempt on the part of their states to band together to change the terms of trade is smothered in the cradle.
Another central component of such warping of the terms of trade is suppression of labor costs. How does imperialism keep wages low? Capitalism keeps wages low the same way it always has, through permanent reserve armies of labor in the periphery, which disempowers rural and urban labor alike. The work of Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik is the most crucial updating of Lenin we have on this topic. The only way to combat such suppression is by structural change: land reform in the Third World or minimum wage increases. It goes without saying what the reactions of the imperialists are to any governments which carry out such actions. One result of this is permanent semi-proletarianization in the Third World, and another is permanent primitive accumulation as a structural feature of capitalism, not some antiquated remnant of the past.
We now also know that permanent primitive accumulation has meant unequal access to the earth systems’ capacity to absorb the waste from oil and coal combustion. Relatively energetically cheap pathways to “high” human development levels have been accessible to oppressor but far less so to oppressed nations, who confront an atmosphere which the core seeks to enclose through international climate treaties. Furthermore, the consequences of global warming have and will continue to damage the poorer nations far more than the richer ones, as typhoons, cyclones, and droughts whirl through Africa and Southeast Asia.
A final aspect is two-fold: massive deflation secured through wars of destruction and sanctions, which are part-and-parcel of ongoing primitive accumulation, on the one hand. And on the other, the role of such wars which seek to salt the Arab earth, as they earlier did to the Philippines a century ago or Algeria almost two centuries ago or the US First Nations for over half a millennium. The role of such wars is to produce and reinforce imperialism and capitalism, showing how the category “value” has as its underside a tremendous and unthinkable destruction of use-values of the poor majority-world. Such destruction does not appear as visible value flows. We cannot track it in quantitative terms. But it is essential to the past and present of capitalism, a topic on which Ali Kadri has written at great length.
In this framework, the bourgeois or post-colonial state is subject to a myriad of pressures. On the one hand, it has become clear that increasingly, post-colonial states which increase their populations’ standards of living are no longer permitted to exist. They were a historical product of the Communist century, when some level of national well-being was thought to be the best way to inoculate populations against the Communist virus. Now, state structures are under an assault reminiscent of colonialism. On the other hand, even those states which had been helmed by political forces which fought for the people, like the MAS in Bolivia or the Partido Trabalhadores in Brazil, were political parties which took state power in capitalist societies. Necessarily, such state structures were part of the architecture of domestic value extraction, while also being battlegrounds and tools to remold that architecture. Because capitalism endured, people were still oppressed, but because these states sought to empower the poor, they angered the metropolis and domestic capital alike.
This fact of post-colonial or neo-colonial states brings us to the second point: opportunism, where Lenin’s analysis remains entirely relevant. We need hardly to open up a single Marxist publication in the core, and increasingly the periphery where there is a conveyor belt of intellectual dependency, to find an erasure of the national question. This occurs through shrugging at NED [National Endowment for Democracy, a US nonprofit that does major high-profile errands for the CIA.—PRISM Ed.] activities in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Syria, or Bolivia, open support for so-called humanitarian intervention or proxy-Contra arming in Syria and Libya or support for sanctions on Iran, or the simple erasure of the role of imperialist intervention in the “ebb” of the Latin American “pink tide.” Imperialism is ignored or so aggressively sidelined and diminished in importance as to be effectively ignored.
How does this happen? First, part of opportunism is denying the importance of the national question and state power in theory and practice, not as the sole mechanism of constructing socialism, but as a necessary means for socialist construction. Such an idea rests on the unproven notion that anything but a state can secure the social space for national self-defense, national healthcare systems, national provision of pharmaceuticals, and national and socialized protection for social reproduction through social security.
Second, we see clearly that “democratic” questions, including political, social, or sub-national rights, are increasingly opposed to national questions, or the basic question of sovereignty and control over national productive resources. By this I do not mean to say that post-colonial development resolved interior contradictions. Quite the opposite: the continued existence of those contradictions and the South-North value flows they facilitate have become an excuse to elevate internal contradictions to greater importance than the North-South contradiction. Thus there is a demand to anatomize the alleged “failures” of the anti-colonial or national-popular governments at the moment of apex imperial assault. Imagine, for example, that exactly as the right-wing US coup against the Evo Morales government was ripping across Bolivia, that we are urged to ask “How did this coup happen? What conditions made it possible?” and the answer is internal contradiction but not the global low tide of internationalism, and the inability of dissidents in the core to throw sand in the gears of their own governments’ machinery of intervention.
The blurring of the national contradiction also forgets that it has been US sanctions and subversion which help create refugees or internal social disarray in the first place. In short, imperialism creates or heightens internal democratic or social shortcomings against nations it wishes to dismantle, and it is then intellectuals in the imperialist core who tell us to ignore the national contradiction! The inability to foreground US imperialism as a means to secure the uneven accumulation of value and indeed a separation of the world into places where value accumulates and increasingly places where even national-capitalist development is denied is not merely an analytical error. It is a class position, which supports the agenda of the US.
In this way, the limits of post-colonial development amidst the global containment and reversal of the Communist century have become a pretext for the re-imposition of colonialism on the periphery, whether through wars of conquest or through colonial-style control over world banking and trading networks. And all of this occurs with the explicit or implicit assent of most of the Western intelligentsia, especially through the acrobatics laid out above.
The other side of the coin, or point three, is that in every successful attempt post-1989 to achieve social liberation at the national level, national-popular modes of organization, the need to take the state, have been central. From Bolivia to Venezuela to Zimbabwe, the state has been a central mechanism for trying to reduce internal inequality and redistribute income. In every case, a new notion of sovereignty and a new notion of the people has been central in defending these anti-systemic projects. In every single case, the attempted mode of subversion has been coup d’état to bring rebellious states into alignment with the US. In every single case, regional state systems have been central. And finally, especially in the Latin American cases, the national question, or popular control of the state, has viewed popular-nationalism as a bridge to broader political terrain and attempted moves towards popular unity across nations, for example through the ALBA project, or Cuban and Venezuelan economic exchange – oil for eye operations in Operacion Milagro, for example, which restored sight to the blind across the Latin American and Caribbean basin. Finally, in each and every case, radicalized states have been antagonistic towards imperialism, identifying clearly the enduring core-periphery or dominating-dominated antagonism. Such an identification was part and parcel of how each attempted national project constructed itself. And such identification was not meant to suppress internal contradiction, but to clarify how to address internal and external contradictions, and to make clear as day that one could not possibly resolve internal contradictions without also remaining clear that South-North value flows continued. There is indeed now a small industry devoted to analyzing the “failure” of these projects, with very little attention to the US role in pushing through counter-revolution in country after country.
This, then, brings us to our fourth point, and returns us to Lenin. Lenin knew that under the existing relations and forces of production in the periphery, the peasant question was paramount. We may disagree with his inability to politically conceive of the peasantry as active subject of revolution and crafter of post-revolutionary popular development, but we ought very much to agree with the idea that the struggle of the “peasant movement against the landowners, against landed proprietorship,” was central in the dominated countries where the agrarian question was absolutely central to revolutionary thought and practice.
Now, I would start by noting, as have the important agrarian scholars Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros, and the departed Sam Moyo, that it has been “in small countries like Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nepal, which have weathered crisis and radicalization to bring back the national question to the development agenda…[and there, furthermore, that] it is no coincidence that the idea of a ‘return to the countryside’ has been most clearly expressed in these countries, uniquely in every case.”
It goes almost without saying that these countries are all under severe (and in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, successful) imperial containment and roll-back.
But in fact we might go further and point out a central element for revolutionary thought and practice. It is not merely that the land and the agrarian questions are central for socialist development in the 21st century, and not merely that these questions can only be posed within a political framework which takes as an axiom the need for defending national sovereignty against the imperialist reaper.
It is also that we may see this class as at the core of what Samir Amin called a national sovereign project, one capable of resolving problems of rural-urban balances, popular development, peasant poverty, and industrialization through holistic and auto-centered development strategies. At the core of such efforts, in the countries of the South, is a dual economic/ecological revolutionary subject, who can close the hemorrhage of value and the denial of the humanity of the Third World and the Earth as our common home which is the basis of Eurocentric thought. We know well that land distribution to the peasantry increases national effective demand and makes it far more egalitarian. It massively reduces rural poverty. More land to the small tiller means on the one hand, reduction in the relative surplus population. Empowering rural labor leads to empowering urban labor, redistributing social power in favor of the working classes in town and city alike, as fuller employment produces political effects.
More smallholder production means more production for domestic needs, since we know smallholders produce mostly for their own use, or local and national markets, whereas it is historically bigger farmers who produce for export. In that way, land actually becomes subject to a socializing logic, as it produces things needed for domestic and popular human needs, and markets become more socially embedded. Smallholder production leads to national food sovereignty. Prices of export commodities may well increase, since they would only be produced and exported if it’s more beneficial than producing needed crops for the hungry domestic population. And because they might be scarcer, countries could more easily demand higher prices. Finally, countries could regulate the relative prices of agricultural and non-agricultural goods so long as they primarily circulate internally. They could break with the world-wide law of value and slowly eliminate unequal exchange. Because markets are broader as value circulates internally and labor grows in power, effective demand increases: a rock-solid foundation for sovereign industrialization.
Furthermore, land distribution to the small peasantry should not in the medium-term decrease production. In fact, it can lead to increased per-hectare production, as has happened in Cuba, and using entirely agro-ecological means of production. It can even lead to greater productivity per unit of labor inputs—which is not to reduce food sovereignty or food availability to questions of productivity, which pale in comparison to questions of power. In the long run, food sovereignty through agro-ecology and smallholder farms might require more labor, although this is not clear. But we know very well that the countries of the periphery are all labor-surplus. The issue is making rural labor attractive rather than oppressive—in other words, a question not of farming, but of power, including that related to gendered and raced hierarchies within the working class. And because agro-ecology requires far fewer capital inputs, it effectively boosts the salaries of rural workers of all kinds, and in turn improves national macro-economic balances. Countries which use agro-ecology don’t have to import inputs, and they are stronger for it, more able to make humane use of their scarce foreign currencies, less vulnerable to the bullying of the more powerful states.
Finally, we know that agro-ecology in the countryside protects biodiversity and locks CO2 into the soil and into vegetation. Nitrogen no longer runs into the sea and carbon dioxide no longer runs into the sky. Instead, massive and destructive metabolic rifts are sewn shut by the patient, careful, difficult, but rewarding stitching of smallholder peasants. We have seen in practice that this can work on local, municipal, and national scales, both by social movements and by states. In this way, they can address on their own the metabolic contradictions of fossil capitalism.
In practice, such bottom-up accumulation of use values, where power and decisions over production remain in the hands of the powerless, in turn making them powerful, fuses the key questions of our day: the national, social, ecological and agrarian questions. In so doing, such practices sketch out a path to popular-national development for the periphery in the 21st century. Through such a political re-orientation, we can see clearly theoretically what anyone who has spent time in the countryside knows with their eyes: that poor peasants, especially poor female peasants, who do so much of the work in the home and fields alike, hold up the sky for all of us. #
 Vladimir I. Lenin, “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” Collected Works 31 (1920): 144–51.
 Lenin, 145.
 Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Resistance Books, 1999), 5.
 Probably for the first time in history, Harvey called Iranian support for anti-colonial militia in Palestine an instance of sub-imperialism. Collective, “Leftists Worldwide, Stand by the Protesters in Iran!,” ROAR Magazine, 2019, https://roarmag.org/2019/11/25/leftists-worldwide-stand-by-the-protesters-in-iran/; Compare to this from the Congressional Research Service: “Sanctions similar to those of E.O. 13224 are imposed on Iranian and Iran-linked entities through the State Department authority under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8.U.S.C. 1189) to designate an entity as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In addition to the sanctions of E.O. 13224, any U.S. person (or person under U.S. jurisdiction) who ‘knowingly provides material support or resources to an FTO, or attempts or conspires to do so’ is subject to fine or up to 20 years in prison. A bank that commits such a violation is subject to fines. Implementation: The following organizations have been designated as FTOs for acts of terrorism on behalf of Iran or are organizations assessed as funded and supported by Iran,” including militia groups in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq: K. Katzman, “Iran Sanctions (Congressional Research Service),” Washington, DC, 2020, 6–7. We should not bother to compare this social science fiction to the actual theories of Roy Mauro Marini concerning sub-imperialism, whom the authors above have neither read nor heard of.
 David Harvey, “A Commentary on A Theory of Imperialism,” in A Theory of Imperialism, by Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik (Columbia University Press, 2016), 154–72.
 Lenin, “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” 145.
 Lenin, 150.
 Giovanni Arrighi, World Income Inequalities and the Future of Socialism (Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1991).
 Samir Amin, “Les effets structurels de l’intégration internationale des économies précapitalistes: une étude théorique du mécanisme qui a engendré les économies dites sous-développées” (Thèse, Paris, France, Université de Paris, 1957). Theotonio Dos Santos, “La Teoría de La Dependencia. Balance y Perspectivas,” 2000.
 Salimah Valiani, Rethinking Unequal Exchange: The Global Integration of Nursing Labour Markets (University of Toronto Press, 2012).
 Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of US World Dominance (Pluto Pr, 2003).
 John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Emmanuel Arghiri, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (Monthly Review Press, 1972).
 Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, A Theory of Imperialism (Columbia University Press, 2016).
 Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros, and Praveen Jha, “Imperialism and Primitive Accumulation: Notes on the New Scramble for Africa,” Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 1, no. 2 (2012): 181–203.
 Ali Kadri, Imperialism with Reference to Syria (Springer, 2019); Ali Kadri, Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (Anthem Press, 2014).
 Quotations from Robert Cavooris, “Origins of the Crisis: On the Coup in Bolivia,” Viewpoint Magazine, November 18, 2019.
 Chris Gilbert, “The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project,” Venezuelanalysis, May 24, 2017, https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13145.
 Emily Kirk, “Operation Miracle: A New Vision of Public Health?,” International Journal of Cuban Studies, 2011, 366–381.
 For an exception, see Freedom Mazwi and George T. Mudimu, “Why Are Zimbabwe’s Land Reforms Being Reversed?,” Economic and Political Weekly 54 (August 13, 2019).
 Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, and Paris Yeros, “The Classical Agrarian Question: Myth, Reality and Relevance Today,” Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 2, no. 1 (2013): 93–119.
 Michal Kalecki, “Political Aspects of Full Employment,” The Political Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1943): 322–330.
 Miguel A. Altieri, Fern, and R. Funes-Monzote, “Monthly Review | The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture,” Monthly Review (blog), January 1, 2012, https://monthlyreview.org/2012/01/01/the-paradox-of-cuban-agriculture; Braulio Machín Sosa et al., “Revolución Agroecológica: El Movimiento de Campesino a Campesino de La ANAP En Cuba,” ANAP, La Habana, 2010.
 Ashlesha Khadse et al., “Taking Agroecology to Scale: The Zero Budget Natural Farming Peasant Movement in Karnataka, India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 1 (January 2, 2018): 192–219, https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1276450; M. Jahi Chappell, Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond (Univ of California Press, 2018).
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