China’s great precursor: Trotsky on the rise of US imperialism

Part 3 of China in the age of American decrepitude

The six years following the publication of Lenin’s Imperialism were a time of uninterrupted political upheaval in Europe, as the working class took the offensive across the continent. The workers seized power in the Russian empire in 1917. A proletarian revolution in Germany in 1918 finally put an end to the war, though the ruling class held on to power. Insurrections brought short-lived workers governments to power in Hungary and Bavaria; there were also uprisings in Italy in 1920, in Poland and again Germany in 1921, and yet another revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1923. But other than the Bolshevik revolution, each of these went down to defeat, leaving the working class ruling in Russia alone. Speaking in 1923, Trotsky explained, “Bourgeois society has held its ground and regained a certain measure of self-confidence. The bourgeoisie does not find itself so directly menaced in Europe today as to arm and set the Fascists in motion. But it does not feel itself firm enough to rule in its own name.”  

Japanese soldiers march past White Russians and representatives from the international coalition in Vladivostok, September 1918. The Russian civil war saw soldiers from 15 nations fighting the Bolsheviks in a chaotic conflict that dragged on for years. (Image by Alamy)
Japanese soldiers parade before counter-revolutionary white Russian forces in Vladivostok 1918. They were part of an international drive to overthrow the revolutionary Bolshevik government. Flags of United States, France, Britain and Japan fly overhead.

The prime concern for the Bolshevik leadership during these years had been the defence of the revolutionary power in Russia – both politically and militarily, as the armies of 13 countries invaded Russia to link up with the bourgeois counter-revolution, and at the same time, every bourgeois and petty-bourgeois current in world politics combined to isolate the Bolsheviks politically. As soon as those threats had been driven back, they turned to reviving the shattered economy of Russia, ruined by seven years of imperialist war and civil war.

There was little time to attend to questions of theory. Lenin was struck down by a stroke in early 1923, and died in January 1924. The Stalinist counter-revolution was already gathering its forces.

Trotsky, centre with pale coat, with Red Army soldiers during civil war

But in preparing the Communist International’s change of tactics in the light of the temporary stabilisation of bourgeois rule, after the failure of the German revolution in 1923, Trotsky had to do just as Lenin had done in preparing Imperialism in 1916 – to dig right down to the hidden connections between economy and politics. As both the Bolshevik power in Russia and capitalist power in Europe were taking a breath, he wrote in the Bulletin of the Socialist Academy, “A letter to the Editor in Place of the Promised Article.” It was subsequently published under the heading The Curve of Capitalist Development.

“It is a very difficult task,” Trotsky wrote, “impossible to solve in its full scope, to determine those subterranean impulses which economics transmits to the politics of today; and yet the explanation of political phenomena cannot be postponed, because the struggle cannot wait. From this flows the necessity of resorting in daily political activity to explanations which are so general that through long usage they become transformed into truisms.

As long as politics keeps flowing in the same forms, within the same banks, and at about the same speed, i.e. as long as the accumulation of economic quantity has not passed into a change of political quality, this type of clarifying abstraction (“the interests of the bourgeoisie”, “imperialism”, “fascism”) still more or less serves its task: not to interpret a political fact in all its concreteness, but to reduce it to a familiar social type, which is, of course, intrinsically of inestimable importance.

But when a serious change occurs in the situation, all the more so a sharp turn, such general explanations reveal their complete inadequacy, and become wholly transformed into empty truisms. In such cases it is invariably necessary to probe analytically much more deeply in order to determine the qualitative aspect, and if possible also to measure quantitatively the impulses of economics upon politics. These “impulses” represent the dialectical form of the “tasks” that originate in the dynamic foundation and are submitted for solution in the sphere of the superstructure.

The sudden emergence in the twenty-first century of China as the locus of world manufacturing is just such a ‘serious change,’ I believe, and it demands the approach suggested by Trotsky. Trotsky himself was at the time grappling with a ‘serious change’ that bears many similarities to the rise of China to world industrial dominance (and some important differences too!) and his thoughts on this are very instructive. They are recorded in two speeches he gave, in 1924 and 1926, that were published together in 1926 under the title Europe and America. (The Marxists Internet Archive publishes them under the separate headings for each speech, Perspectives of World Development (July 1924), and the second in two parts, Europe and America (February 1926) Part 1, and Part 2.) In these speeches Trotsky is at the height of his power as a revolutionary leader of the Soviet Union, on the world stage and thereby able to observe bourgeois diplomatic struggles at close hand; this is Trotsky at his most perspicacious and bold. These were some of the last speeches he gave before the Stalinist counter-revolution cut him down from that viewpoint.

At the time, the capitalists’ most urgent need, in order to avert further revolutionary struggles, was to stabilise the currencies and wages.

“In approaching this question,” Trotsky explains, “we run up against the central figure in the modern history of mankind: the United States of North America. Comrades, whoever wishes or tries today to discuss the destiny of Europe or of the world proletariat without taking the power and significance of the USA into account, is in a certain sense drawing up a balance sheet without consulting the master.”

Woodrow Wilson
US President Woodrow Wilson visiting France at the conclusion of the war in 1918. US loans had funded the war effort of France and Britain. Wilson’s “14 points” dictated the borders of post-war Europe.

He describes the tours of post-war Europe by the banker and general (and later Vice President) Charles Dawes, and a string of other American generals and envoys, each of whom demands an audience with the top European rulers, where he presents demands and issues orders. “Why orders? Because he has the power to order. Of what does this power consist? Of capital. Of wealth. Of unprecedented economic power.”

“In the past, the development of Europe and of the whole world proceeded by and large under the conductor’s baton of England. England was the first country to make large-scale use of coal and iron, and thanks to this took into her hands for a long time the leadership of the world. In other words, England cashed in politically – and in international relations – on her economic preponderance… But the preponderance which England possessed in the heyday of her prosperity over Europe and the rest of the world is nothing compared to the preponderance of the US today over the whole world, including England – and this, comrades, is the central question of European and world history.”

Trotsky notes the events that marked the rise of the US to world dominance: the 1898 war against Spain through which it grabbed Spain’s Caribbean and Pacific colonies, the taking of Panama in the early 1900s and the building of the canal which opened the US highway to Asia, the year 1900 when for the first time US exports exceeded its imports, the moment in 1917 when it entered the Great War in order to prevent a German victory, and when the US appears in Europe “draping itself in the toga of pacifism.” “These are the dates marking the entry of the United States into the highroad of world brigandage, i.e. the road of imperialism”

Panama Canal - Topics on
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 re-shaped patterns of world trade to the advantage of the United States

Trotsky summarises the goals of the United States in relation to post-war Europe thus: “What does American capitalism want? … American capitalism is compelled not to render Europe capable of competition; it cannot allow England, and all the more so Germany and France, particularly Germany, to regain their world markets inasmuch as American capitalism finds itself hemmed in, because it is now an exporting capitalism – exporting both commodities and capital. American capitalism is seeking the position of world domination … Europe will be permitted to rise again, but within limits set in advance, with certain restricted sections of the world market allotted to it. American capitalism is now issuing commands, giving instructions to its diplomats. In exactly the same way it is preparing and is ready to issue instructions to European banks and trusts, to the European bourgeoisie as a whole … This is its aim. It will slice up the markets; it will regulate the activity of the European financiers and industrialists. If we wish to give a clear and precise answer to the question of what American imperialism wants, we must say: It wants to put capitalist Europe on rations. This means that it will specify just how many tons, liters and kilograms and just what materials Europe has a right to buy and sell… issuing orders to Europe how much she is to eat and drink.”

 Trotsky continues: “… we hear it said often today that America is marching hand in hand with England, and that an Anglo-Saxon bloc has been formed. It is said that the basic world antagonism lies in the hostility between America and Japan. But this is the language of those who do not understand the situation. The basic world antagonism occurs along the line of the conflict of interests between the United States and England. Why? Because England is still the wealthiest and most powerful country, second only to the United States. It is America’s chief rival, the main obstacle on its path.

In a footnote, Trotsky makes a point that is particularly pertinent today: “During the last two years it might have appeared that a firm agreement had been reached by these two giants [England and the United States – JR]. But this appearance of stability will be retained only so long as the economic rise of the North American Republic continues to develop primarily on the basis of its domestic market. Today this development is obviously drawing to its conclusion… The productive forces of America must seek ever broader outlets on the world market. The foreign trade of the US can develop first of all only at the expense of Britain’s trade…The period of Anglo-American agreements must cede place to an ever-sharpening struggle, which, in its turn, signalizes the threat of war on a scale never seen before.”

“What capitalist Europe has now at its disposal in world politics is the heritage of its former economic power, its old international influence which no longer corresponds to today’s material conditions… In vain does the British bourgeois console himself that he will serve as guide for the inexperienced American. Yes, there will be a transitional period. But the crux of the matter does not lie in the habits of diplomatic leadership, but in actual power, existing capital and industry.

“The world position of the United States is expressed in figures which are irrefutable. Let me mention a few of the most important ones… Oil, which now plays such an exceptional military and industrial role, totals in the United States two-thirds of the world output, and in 1923 it had even reached approximately 72 percent… The US produces one-fourth of the world grain crop; … one-half of the world coal output; about one-half of the world’s iron ore, and about 60 percent of its pig iron; 60 percent of the steel; 60 percent of the copper; 47 percent of the zinc… the number of automobiles operating in the trans-Atlantic republic amounts to 84.4 percent of the world total! … The national income of the United States is two and a half times greater than the combined national incomes of England, France, Germany and Japan. These figures decide everything.”

US Steel South Works, Chicago, 1920s. Trotsky said, “The US produces one-fourth of the world grain crop; … one-half of the world coal output; about one-half of the world’s iron ore, and about 60 percent of its pig iron; 60 percent of the steel; 60 percent of the copper; 47 percent of the zinc…These figures decide everything.

“…only retreats are possible for England. At the price of these retreats English capitalism buys the right to participate in the deals of American capitalism. Thus a coalition Anglo-American capitalism seemingly arises. England saves face, and does so not unprofitably, for England derives substantial profits from it. But it receives them at the price of retreating and clearing the way for America. The US is strengthening her world positions; England’s are growing weaker.”

Trotsky explains that “The US entered the world arena late, after the whole world had already been seized and divided. The imperialist progress of the US therefore proceeds under the banner of “the freedom of the seas,” “open doors,” and so on…”

This American “pacifist” program of universal bondage is by no means a peaceful one. On the contrary, it is pregnant with wars and the greatest revolutionary paroxysms. Not for nothing does America continue to expand her fleet. She is busily engaged in building light and fast cruisers… And the others cannot vie with her, because, as the Americans themselves say, they can turn out warships like so many pancakes.

Gen. Charles Dawes during World War I. Trotsky writes, “in the line of duty, I have been obliged to engage in discussions with several American Senators, Republicans and Democrats alike. In appearance they are out-and-out provincials… Whenever they discuss politics they express themselves as follows: “I told Poincare,” “I said to Curzon,” “I explained to Mussolini…” This wealthy food packer from Chicago or elsewhere refers with outright patronizing condescension to the eminent bourgeois politicians of Europe. He expects to be the master; he already feels himself the master.

“The perspective this offers is one of preparation for the greatest international dogfight, with both the Atlantic and the Pacific as the arena, provided of course the bourgeoisie is able to retain its world rule for any considerable length of time. For it is hard to conceive that the bourgeoisie of all countries will docilely withdraw to the backyard, and become converted into America’s vassals without putting up a fight; no, this is hardly likely. The contradictions are far too great; the appetites are far too insatiable; the urge to perpetuate ancient rulership is far too potent; England’s habits of world rule are far too ingrained. There will be military collisions. The indicated era of pacifist Americanism is laying the groundwork for new wars on an unprecedented scale and of unimaginable monstrousness.

“… For what does America need? She needs to secure her profits at the expense of the European toiling masses, and thus render stable the privileged position of the upper crust of the American working-class. Without the American labor aristocracy, American capitalism cannot maintain itself.”

Trotsky returned to this aspect of the question two years later in Europe and America.

“… In the United States there is now a vast movement of the so-called company unions, that is, organizations which, in contrast to the trade unions, consist not only of workers but also of the bosses, or rather representatives of both. In other words, the phenomenon that occurred at the time of the guild organization of production, and which disappeared after feudalism, has now assumed unprecedented and entirely new forms in the most powerful capitalist country.”

After surveying the institutionalisation of class collaboration in the US, he describes the unusually favourable natural and historical conditions under which capitalism developed in the US. “… Everything that Europe cast out crossed the ocean. The flower of European nations, her most active elements, all those who wished to make their own way at any cost fell into an environment where this [feudal and clerical] historic rubbish did not exist but where virgin nature with its inexhaustible abundance reigned. Such is the basis of America’s development, America’s technology, America’s wealth. What inexhaustible nature lacked was – man. Dearest of all in the USA was labor power. Hence, the mechanization of labor. The principle of production by means of the conveyor line is not an accidental principle. It is an expression of the tendency to replace man by machines…”

… Such, in its main features, is the material power of the United States. It is this power that permits the American capitalists to follow the old practice of the British bourgeoisie: fatten the labor aristocracy in order to keep the proletariat shackled. They have entered into this practice to such a degree of perfection as the British bourgeoisie would never even have dared to consider.”

Again, he emphasises that the process of the United States taking command is still in its initial stages, and is difficult to comprehend: … “The world processes under study are developing with such rapidity and on such a scale that our minds can only with great difficulty grasp, comprehend and assimilate them…”

He compares this to the reaction to the Copernican theory according to which it is “…not the sun revolves about the earth but, on the contrary, it is the earth, a modest and middle-sized planet, that revolves around the sun. There were many who refused to believe it. Their geocentric patriotism was outraged. The same is true now in regard to America. The European bourgeois does not want to believe that he has been shoved to the background, that it is the USA that rules the capitalist world… it required the war in order at a single blow to raise America, lower Europe and lay bare the abrupt shift of the world axis.

An identical ‘geocentric patriotism’ can influence thinking in relation to China today.

“…Before the war America was Europe’s debtor. The latter served as the principal factory and the principal depot for world commodities. Moreover Europe, above all England, was the central banker of the world. All these three leading roles now belong to the United States. Europe has been relegated to the background. The US is the principal factory, the principal depot and the central bank of the world.”

“… On the eve of the war, the US still needed foreign capital, received this capital from Europe and placed it in industry. The growth of American industrial power led at a certain stage to the rapid formation of finance capital … Once begun, this process proceeds with ever greater acceleration. What two or three years ago was still in the field of conjecture is now taking place before our eyes. But this is only the beginning. The campaign of American finance capital for the conquest of the world will actually begin only tomorrow…

“… From the power of the United States and the weakening of Europe flows the inevitability of a new division of world forces, spheres of influence and world markets. America must expand while Europe is forced to contract. In precisely this consists the resultant of the basic economic processes that are taking place in the capitalist world. The US reaches out into all world channels and everywhere takes the offensive. She operates in a strictly “pacifist” manner, that is, without the use of armed force as yet, “without effusion of blood” as the Holy Inquisition said when burning heretics alive. She expands peaceably because her adversaries, grinding their teeth, are retreating step by step, before this new power, not daring to risk an open clash. That is the basis of the “pacifist” policy of the United States.

Most important of all, Trotsky says, is that declining Europe has no way out. “It is to this United States, who brooks no obstacle on her path, who views each rise in prices of raw materials she lacks as a malicious assault upon her inalienable right to exploit the whole world – it is to this new America, wildly on the offensive, that dismembered, divided Europe finds itself counterposed – a Europe, poorer than before the war, with the framework of its markets still more restricted, loaded with debts, torn by antagonisms and crushed by bloated militarism… There is no avenue of escape for European capitalism… American capitalism, in driving Europe more and more into a blind alley, will automatically drive her onto the road of revolution.”

German prisoners of war in Siberia, 1917. Trotsky writes, “it is to this new America, wildly on the offensive, that dismembered, divided Europe finds itself counterposed – a Europe, poorer than before the war, with the framework of its markets still more restricted, loaded with debts, torn by antagonisms and crushed by bloated militarism

“… Has capitalism outlived itself? Or to put it differently: Is capitalism still capable of developing the productive forces on a world scale and of heading mankind forward? This is a fundamental question. It is of decisive significance for the proletariat of Europe, for the oppressed peoples of the Orient, for the entire world… Because, as Marx explained, no social system disappears before exhausting all the possibilities latent in it. Confronted with the new economic situation unfolding before us at present, with the ascendancy of America over all capitalist mankind and the radical shift in the correlation of economic forces, we must pose anew this question: Has capitalism outlived itself? Or has it still before it a perspective of progressive work?

 Trotsky had already answered this question emphatically in the negative in respect to Europe. “…But what about America? So far as America is concerned the picture seems to be quite different. And Asia? After all, it is impossible to leave Asia out of the calculation. Asia and Africa represent 55 per cent of the earth’s surface and 60 per cent of the world’s population… Is capitalism still capable of fulfilling a progressive mission in America? Has it such a mission to perform in Asia and Africa? In Asia, capitalist development has taken only its first major steps; while in Africa, the new relations penetrate the body of the continent itself only from the periphery. Just what are the perspectives here? The conclusion seems to be the following: capitalism has outlived itself in Europe; in America it still advances the productive forces, while in Asia and Africa it has before it a vast virgin field of activity for many decades if not centuries. Is that really the case? Were it so, comrades, it would mean that capitalism has not yet exhausted its mission on a world scale. But we live under the conditions of world economy. And it is just this that determines the fate of capitalism-for all the continents. Capitalism cannot have an isolated development in Asia, independent of what takes place in Europe or in America.”

A hundred years later, after a second world “war on an unprecedented scale and of unimaginable monstrousness” and many others equally monstrous on a local scale, America is no longer advancing the productive forces. But China is undeniably doing so, and thus the question ‘Has capitalism outlived itself’ is posed once more.


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