Whatever Happened to Imperialism?

By Patnaik, Prabhat | Monthly Review, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Whatever Happened to Imperialism?


Patnaik, Prabhat, Monthly Review


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO IMPERIALISM?

An outsider cannot help noticing a remarkable transformation that has taken place in the Marxist discourse in the United States over the last decade: hardly anybody talks about imperialism any more. In 1974, I left Cambridge, England, where I was teaching economics, and have now returned to the West, this time to the United States, after 15 years. When I left, imperialism occupied perhaps the most prominent place in any Marxist discussion, and nowhere was more being written about and talked about on this subject than in the United States--so much so that many European Marxists accused American Marxism of being tainted with "third worldism." Herbert Marcuse had written that advanced capitalism had manipulated its internal class contradictions to a point where the only effective challenge that could be launched against it (other than from students and marginal groups within) was in the "periphery." Monthly Review had a more or less similar position. And there was a veritable flood of books and articles written on the role of U.S. imperialism in the third world. Many of these were no doubt somewhat naive, and some almost subscribed to a conspiracy theory; but they had vigor, and Marxists everywhere looked to the United States for literature on imperialism.

That is obviously not the case today. Younger Marxists look bemused when the term is mentioned. Burning issues of the day such as Eastern Europe or perestroika are discussed, but without any reference to imperialism. Radical indignation over the invasion of Panama or military intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador does not jell into theoretical propositions about imperialism. And the topic has virtually disappeared from the pages of Marxist journals, especially those of a later vintage.

Curiously, this is not because any one has theorized against the concept. The silence over imperialism is not the aftermath of some intense debate where the scales tilted decisively in favor of one side; it is not a theoretically self-conscious silence. Nor can it be held that the world has so changed in the last decade and a half that to talk of imperialism has become an obvious anachronism. Of course, a decade and a half ago, half a million U.S. troops had only recently withdrawn from a bloody war in Vietnam, while nothing of the sort is happening now. But no Marxist ever derived the existence of imperialism from the fact of wars; on the contrary, the existence of wars was explained in terms of imperialism. Why a Vietnam has not happened since then is thus a separate matter; but the theoretical perspective in terms of which we saw Vietnam is after all a more basic question and can not be brushed aside just because no Vietnam has happened in the last 15 years.

Moreover, while nothing on the scale of Vietnam has happened since then, plenty has happened and is happening to belie the proposition that the world today is in any way fundamentally different. There was the invasion of Grenada, and more recently the invasion of Panama, justified on the argument that the jurisdiction of a U.S. court extends to foreign countries as well. There has been the remarkable spectacle of the United States using its domestic social crisis, i.e., drug-abuse among the youth, as an argument for violating the sovereignty of states across the entire Latin American continent, waging battles against peasants to alter their production decisions (even while demands for raising the prices of alternative crops to coca have met with a stubborn refusal). These are not stray incidents: the idea has been espoused quite openly that the United States can legitimately allow kidnappings or even assassinations of foreign nationals who may have been guilty of crimes according to U.S. laws. Just the other day, the U.S. Attorney General openly justified the kidnapping of a Mexican doctor accused of complicity in the assassination of a drug enforcement agent, on the grounds that for him American lives came first (imagine what would happen if India abducted the Board of Directors of Union Carbide, the multinational corporation whose gross negligence resulted in the loss of thousands of lives by methyl isocyanate poisoning in Bhopal). …

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