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Imperialism is inscribed in the very DNA of capitalism

A wide-ranging interview with British activist and researcher John Smith about imperialism, super-exploitation, and struggle

Economic CrisisLabour

Labourers at a garment factory in Bac Giang province, Vietnam, 2015. Photo by Nguyen Huy Kham.

Contemporary imperialism can be a difficult concept to grasp. Part of this is undoubtedly intentional, with its beneficiaries relegating imperialism—like colonialism and racism—to a previous era that has since been transcended.

But another aspect is simply its sheer complexity, involving theorizations of near-countless economic, military, and political weapons including (but certainly not limited to) unequal exchange, income deflation, labour-value chains, monopoly rent, technological superiority and value capture, domination of the financial system, sanctions, blockades, and economic coercive measures, and, of course, invasions, coups, and hybrid warfare.

Different understandings of imperialism can significantly impact how people interpret ongoing events, such as whether Russia is imperialist, sub-imperialist, or a non-imperial capitalist state. It can be easy to disregard these sorts of disagreements as mere theoretical squabbling with little impact on the real world. But as Gabriel Kuhn argued in his taxonomy of imperialism: “If we want to combat imperialism—which is necessary to combat capitalism—we need to have an understanding of what it looks like, how it functions, and where we need to hit it.”

John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis, published in 2016 by Monthly Review Press, argues for a theory of contemporary imperialism grounded in super-exploitation, outsourcing, and global labour arbitrage. It is a highly readable and clarifying text that offers a comprehensive analysis of the global shift of production to the South in recent decades.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Smith about imperialism, super-exploitation, outsourcing, imperialist states, financial crises, and anti-imperialist struggle.


Canadian Dimension (CD): There are many competing definitions of imperialism, including (and perhaps especially) among Marxists. How do you conceptualize imperialism?

John Smith (JS): For me, the term capitalism is a generic term to define a mode of production based on the exploitation of wage labour and imperialism is merely the synonym for the concrete form of capitalism that we now have.

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks were writing about imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, they were talking at a time where capitalist social relations had only begun to penetrate into the colonial world. The relationship between the imperialist countries and the oppressed nations were largely a relationship between capitalist countries and pre-capitalist countries. Since the period in which Lenin wrote, capitalist social relations have actually penetrated to every corner of the earth.

People often forget the other definition that Lenin offered of imperialism, which is the division of the world into a handful of oppressor nations and a great majority of oppressed nations. You could say that in many ways that division was even the precondition for the rise of capitalism. As Marx explains in Capital, it was the slavery and the conquest of the Americas that provided the pedestal for the rise of capital. So the pre-existing imperialist divisions provided the basis for the rise of capitalism.

What I would argue is that in the 100 years since Lenin wrote, the oppression of nations has actually become internalized. When capitalism finds social relations that pre-existed it, which are inimical to its continued development, it eradicates them. But when it finds pre-existing social relations which are conducive to its further development, it internalizes them and makes them into a quality of its own. Patriarchy is a good example of this: patriarchy pre-existed capitalism but it’s so useful to capitalism that capitalism internalized it, so that today you can’t understand patriarchy unless you understand it to be an essential, intrinsic feature of capitalism.

I would say that the oppression of nations has now become internal to the capital-labour relation. That is why it is correct to say, in my opinion, that the concrete definition of this current stage of capitalism is simply imperialism, because the fundamental basis of imperialism—the division of the world into oppressed and oppressor nations—has, in the century since Lenin died, become internal to the capital-labour relation itself.

CD: What is super-exploitation?

JS: The traditional definition of super-exploitation within the Marxist literature and tradition is forcing down wages below the value of labour-power. But even that is a limited definition because it assumes that there is one value of labour-power. In the world at the moment there are many different values of labour-power, because the labour market is the most imperfect, constricted, balkanized, and stratified of any market that you can talk about.

A more complete definition recognizes that there are different values of labour-power in different countries; different rates of exploitation—surplus value over variable capital, or s/v—in different parts of the global capitalist economy. So, you can either try to imagine a global average rate of exploitation: in some places there’s a higher rate of exploitation and in other places it’s a lower rate, and everywhere where it’s a higher rate is a form of super-exploitation, an exploitation higher than the average. Or you could say that any rate of exploitation that is higher than what prevails in the imperialist countries is super-exploitation.

It is extraordinary, really, that by the third decade of the 21st century, we have most Marxists in the imperialist countries denying there is any such thing as super-exploitation or, if it does exist, denying that it’s at all relevant. This is astonishing to me.

Who can deny that Bangladeshi women working 12 hours a day in a factory working as hard as they possibly can on piecework with no access to healthcare or social security or pensions are exploited more intensely than workers in the imperialist countries? It’s just reactionary nonsense. You just have to fight, no compromise, on this. That’s why, on this matter, I’ve tried to be as pugnacious in my book as I possibly could.

CD: How does super-exploitation relate to monopoly?

JS: The most widely accepted definition of imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism, when it moved from the free competition stage of the middle of the 19th century to the emergence of monopoly finance capital. This is true, but I think it’s one-sided. I think it is incomplete.

Monopoly is only indirectly concerned with the extraction of surplus value from workers; it is always about how this surplus value is divided up between different capitalists. Monopoly, therefore, is about unequal relations between capitals, not about the capital-labour relation.

Monopoly can come in many, many different forms. It always means that one particular capitalist has some privilege or some condition which is helpful to him, something which other capitalists don’t have easy access to. It may be some obstacle to entry of new capitalists into the market: intellectual property rights are often a big part of that. But it could also be a corrupt relationship with governments that, in return for putting some money into a Swiss bank account, lands you that contract.

Monopoly necessarily implies imperfect markets. It means you don’t have free competition; that some capitalists have a privileged position and they are able, because of this, to achieve a higher rate of profit than the average rate of profit. And there are all kinds of tensions and so on that come from this.

What we now see in the world is that differences in the rate of exploitation and the mechanisms by which capitalists in imperialist countries are able to capture the lion’s share of the wealth generated by super-exploited workers in oppressed nations has become fundamental and essential to imperialism and, really, we need a theory of imperialism which actually integrates monopoly and super-exploitation. In many ways, super-exploitation is even more fundamental than monopoly because it refers to the actual process of extraction of surplus value, not simply its distribution once it has been extracted.

A concept of imperialism has to include something more than just monopoly and monopoly finance capital. It has to include, and give at least equal status, to super-exploitation: to using military force and coercive measures and all forms of oppression and racism to stratify and create a hierarchy. The whole purpose of this is to grab a bigger share of wealth, to raise their rate of profit. It has become, in other words, ever-more reliant on super-exploitation.

If it wasn’t for neoliberal globalization giving them access to workers who were obliged to work because of their desperation for wages that are 1/10th or 1/20th or 1/30th of what workers in the United States and Canada and Europe receive then capitalism would have gone into its final crisis some 30 or 40 years ago, rather than beginning its final crisis right now.

CD: What is the specific mechanism of value transfer or capture by which imperialism and super-exploitation operates?

JS: In something I wrote called “Imperialism in a Coffee Cup,” I use the example of a cup of coffee. If you go into Starbucks or Costa Coffee here in this country, the cost of a cup of coffee now is something like £3 or £3.5, which is like $4 or $4.50.

The Financial Times, a while back, did a breakdown of the £3 cup of coffee and was able to show that the coffee farmer who grew that coffee receives one pence out of that £3 cup of coffee. Another one pence, maximum, will stay in the country where the coffee is grown and retained by the middle-man, the merchant. The other £2.98 will appear in the gross domestic product of the UK.

Now what’s interesting is that about 40 percent of the final sale price of that £3 cup of coffee will end up in the hands of the British government through taxes on wages and profits and advertising and rent of the landlord that owns the building that they lease to the coffee shop. Which is about what you’d expect, because the British state’s total tax revenue is about 40 percent of Britain’s GDP. So, on average, 40 percent of the final sale price of any good ends up in the hands of the British state.

So 40 percent of a £3 cup of coffee would give you £1.20. And the British state spends about 30 percent of its tax revenue on the National Health Service (NHS). So about 40p of that £3 cup of coffee will be taken by the British state to pay for the health service. The cup of coffee that was produced by a farmer who can’t afford even the most basic healthcare to his or her children has ended up contributing 40p to paying the cost of the NHS.

So, when people say “why should we allow migrants and asylum seekers to have access to the NHS?” the answer which they should be given—the truthful answer, the answer that nobody is giving—is because they’ve helped to pay for it.

It’s reckoned that there are 25 million coffee farmers in the world. Most of them are small farmers. And most of them will actually use their own family labour, their own children, to bring in the coffee crop. Around 3.5 percent of the world’s coffee crop is purchased by the UK. A simple, back of the envelope calculations shows that around 600,000 to 700,000 coffee farmers devote their entire working lives to satisfying the coffee consumption needs of people in the UK.

There is value-added to the cup of coffee by the baristas and by the roasters here in the imperialist countries. But I would argue that the bulk of the value contained in that cup of coffee was actually contributed by the coffee farmers and their family members. Statistics obscure this reality and make it appear as if the value of their hard work, of the living labour required for the cultivation and harvesting of the beans needs for the cup of coffee, is just one pence.

The mechanism of value transfer is all about the transformation of value generated in the production of a commodity to its final sale price. Marx talked about how the values generated in production become transformed into what he called prices of production, which is the actual costs of production plus the average rate of profit.

We can say in shorthand that value is transferred from the sectors which are labour intensive to the sectors that are capital-intensive. If that didn’t happen, capitalist development would be impossible: there would be no incentive to invest in expensive machinery.

Clearly, the factors that affect the transformation of values into prices of production are seriously affected by differences in wage levels and every other concrete feature of the actual global economy. That’s why it’s necessary to identify imperialism as a synonym for the concrete form of capitalism in this part of the 21st century.

The result of the massive expansion of wage labour in oppressed nations is that more than 80 percent of the world’s industrial workers are in low-wage countries, a big change since 1980, when the total number of industrial workers in the imperialist countries was more or less at parity with the rest of the world in 1980.

This means that the whole process of transformation of values into prices of production has been profoundly transformed during the so-called neoliberal era. A concrete concept of 21st century capitalism, must recognize just how essential this expanded super-exploitation has become. What’s really given it the lifeline since the crisis of the 1970s has been the massive growth of exploitation, the massive expansion of super-exploitation, in the Global South.

CD: Why is arms-length out-sourcing, rather than only in-house portfolio investments and foreign direct investment, so crucial to this arrangement: not only in terms of value transfer but how such processes become very difficult to see and understand?

JS: You can imagine a situation where a transnational corporation builds a subsidiary in a poor country for the purpose of taking advantage of cheap labour there, in which case there will be a visible flow of profits. When we talk about the GDP of a country, that actually includes all the wealth that is supposedly generated—all the wealth that is recorded as originating from a country—including by transnational corporations that form part of that economy.

All of the profits will accrue to the transnational corporations: they’ll have to pay some taxes. Those profits will then either finance new investments in that country or they will be repatriated. You can see there that transnational corporations are quite visibly making profits, and you can readily obtain statistics that show profits being transferred from the poor country to the rich country.

But in many industries, such as the garment industry, the clothes that I buy which have a “made in Bangladesh” or “made in Myanmar” or “made in Vietnam” or “made in China” label are very likely actually produced by capitalists in those countries who are not subsidiaries but completely independent. Instead of it being an in-house relationship, it is an arms-length relationship.

In this case, you won’t find any trace of a flow of profits or surplus value from the poor country to the rich country. You will find some circumstantial evidence that this might be happening. As we’ve seen, I buy an item of clothing made in Bangladesh for £30 from Marks & Spencer and only £1 of it will actually remain in Bangladesh. The actual cost price is £1: the other £29 appears in the GDP of the UK.

There are, on the face of it, many reasons why the capitalists would actually prefer to keep things in-house. It gives them a lot more opportunity for transfer pricing and a lot more control over the production process. But it turns out there is even more advantages to be gained from maintaining an arms-length relationship.

John Smith received his PhD from the University of Sheffield and is currently self-employed as a researcher and writer. He has been an oil rig worker, bus driver, and telecommunications engineer, and is a longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements.

First of all, you can get the different independent firms in the different supplying nations to compete with each other. Talking after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, Frances O’Grady, leader of the British Trades Union Congress, said “in the global race to the bottom on working conditions, the finishing line is Bangladesh.”

In other words, the Bangladeshi capitalist that produced the clothes that are then sold by the big department stores in the rich countries are paid such a low price that they can’t afford to build safe factories. They can’t afford safety improvements. They can’t afford to increase the wages. They have to bear down on the workers wages.

There’s some data that I give in the book that the margin of the capitalist in Bangladesh is like two or three percent. And there’s recently been a study produced showing that despite all the promises after the Rana Plaza disaster, the global buyers of the garments have been putting even more pressure on the Bangladeshi producers to cut prices.

That’s another reason why the arms-length relationship is favoured, because all of the risk associated with upheavals in the market can be transferred to independent capitalists in the poor countries. Coca-Cola has outsourced the bottling of their poison to independent firms who, in Colombia, are accused of hiring death squads to go attack and kill trade unionists. If you’re doing this at arms-length, then you can do a Pontius Pilate impression and wash your hands and say “it’s nothing to do with us; if it’s happening then we’re not ordering it, it’s this independent company.”

So all of those are reasons why the out-sourcing relationship has become very popular and has really, in many industries, eclipsed in-house foreign direct investment.

CD: What is the role of the imperialist state in all of this?

JS: It’s clear that the imperialist transnational corporations really very much rely on state power. Their power and profits do not result from purely economic mechanisms. The imperialist states dominate the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

These are not part of the United Nations system, which is based on the idea of every country having the same vote. It’s quite the contrary when it comes to the World Bank and IMF. It’s very interesting when you get the head of the United Nations denouncing the global financial system as “morally bankrupt” (there’s a lot of things that we should listen to Guterres on).

In the 19th century, there was enormous emigration from the imperialist countries to the so-called “New World,” an escape valve that helped reduce surplus labour in the imperialist countries and thereby create the basis for a gradual, slow improvement in living standards for workers in the imperialist countries.

However, the safety valve that existed for European in the 19th century does not exist for the workers of the global South in the 20th century. The surplus labour that has been generated in semi-colonial countries since World War II by the extension of capitalist relations into the countryside—“liberating” workers from their ties to the land, dissolving traditional communal forms of production, and so on—is corralled in those countries, creating an enormous downward pressure on wages within those countries.

These borders, of course, are policed 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year by massive military coercion. Thus the imperialist states are centrally involved in creating the conditions for a huge extension of super-exploitation in so-called developing countries.

CD: There’s extensive debate about whether countries such as Russia and China can be imperialist, which of course centrally relates to how we define imperialism in the first place. What’s your position on this debate, particularly in the context of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine?

JS: In my own opinion, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine deserves the adjective “imperialist.” I think it’s extremely interesting to read Vladimir Putin’s famous speech a few days before his invasion which was widely talked about as a long, rambling speech.

Well, it wasn’t a long rambling speech at all—it was incredibly well-constructed—and he spent half of it denouncing Lenin and the Bolsheviks for Ukrainian nationalism. He showed here, really, just how much the attempt to recapture the Ukraine was an attempt to rebuild the greater Russian empire.

They’re motivated by geopolitics but also by desire to gain access to Ukraine’s incredibly rich mineral resources and also its incredibly rich topsoil, which has yet to be completely destroyed and will only grow in importance.

Trying to seize somebody else’s raw materials and trying to enslave its people is a form of imperialism, while out-sourcing production to super-exploit workers—such as we’ve seen on a massive scale since 1980—is a more modern, advanced form of imperialism. The former is primarily aimed at plundering the wealth of nature, the latter at plundering living labour. Two modes of what is essentially the same phenomenon.

So I have no problem identifying that what Putin is doing and what the Russian oligarchy is doing is imperialist. Here I am focusing on the economic dimension, and leave to one side the geopolitical aspects of imperialism, which of course are extremely important. I do so because the economic imperialism drive the politics. When we are confronted by the spectacle of rival gangs of thieves struggling for supremacy, differences between them should not obscure the fact what they have in common—thievery.

As for China, its companies that are moving production from China into countries like Myanmar and Cambodia because wage levels are much lower there provide clear evidence of the same process—albeit on a much smaller scale—that European and North American corporations have indulged in since the 1980s.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) requires much more careful analysis than is possible here. Again, the geopolitical dimension is extremely important. Essentially, China’s capitalist rulers are attempting to forge an alliance with the national bourgeoisies of a great number of countries who are chafing at their subjection to European and North American imperialism. Under BRI, they typically offer more favourable terms than do Western governments and the financial institutions—the IMF and World Bank—under their control, and are much less prone to interfere in the internal affairs of these countries.

It is fascinating just how much China has become main official creditor to poor countries. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are good examples. But the amount of debt which is owed to private investors from Europe and North America still is far greater in both of those countries than the amount of debt which is owed to state-owned banks in China. Yet BRI is motivated by self-interest, not solidarity. Cuba built an international airport in Grenada during its glorious revolutionary years in the 1980s, and Grenada was left with not a single cent of debt.

Chinese-supported infrastructure projects under BRI has nothing in common with this! China is challenging Western hegemony by seeking to replace it with a hegemony of their own. BRI is a mode of imperialism, an expression of China’s imperialist trajectory.

Whether China’s transition to capitalism is qualitatively complete is a complicated question: there isn’t a free market in land (although they’re moving in that direction), the banking system is controlled largely by the state, rather than the other way round, and there are important ways in which the gains of the Chinese revolution have not yet been completely swept away. But the attempts by China to achieve equal status with imperialist powers signifies that they are trying to become an imperialist power themselves. That doesn’t mean that they are imperialist in exactly the same way, or just as imperialist as the rest. But it is their direction of travel.

Every capitalist would like to be an imperialist. Every capitalist would like to become an monopolist. Every capitalist would like to reap not just the average rate of profit but a higher than average rate of profit, which is always at the expense of other capitalists who have to accept a lower than average rate of profit. Every capitalist would love to be able to not just exploit but super-exploit.

It is the constant attempts by capitalists to try to find some monopoly, some edge over their rivals to make sure they can achieve more than their average “fair share” of profits, and it is only their incessant efforts to violate the law of value—the equality between buyers and sellers in the marketplace—that ensures the continuing reign of the law of value.

In short, imperialism is inscribed in the very DNA of capitalism, and this is just as true of China’s capitalists as it is of their rivals.

Bangladeshi activists and garment workers during a protest demanding a minimum wage of $100 per month in the capital city of Dhaka, November 8, 2013. Photo by Andrew Biraj.

CD: The end of your book connects the 2007-08 financial crisis to global labour arbitrage starting in the 1970s. Do you see similar connections to recent crises such as the inflation/cost of living and impending global recession?

JS: What does the return of inflation actually represent? What does it signify? The standard answer is it’s the result of major contingent events: namely the invasion of Ukraine and the global COVID epidemic.

But the most intelligent bourgeois economists—and there aren’t many of them—actually see beyond this. Claudio Borio, the chief economist at the Bank for International Settlements, said that the return of inflation signified the end of the debt-fuelled growth model. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made the even more important point that Chinese workers did more to kill inflation during the 1980s and on than all of the clever policies of the central banks.

The central banks clap themselves on the back about their monetary and economic policies that had helped to subdue inflation but what had really subdued inflation was the enormously deflationary effect of the outsourcing of production to low-wage countries. I can go buy a pair of jeans today and actually pay less in nominal terms than my very first pair of jeans back in the 1970s, because these jeans are no longer made in the United States by Levi Strauss (which stopped its last production of jeans 15 years ago). Outsourcing of production to low-wage countries was absolutely fundamental to the apparent disappearance of inflation from 1980s onwards.

However, we must note as an aside that what Borio, Borrell and others don’t recognize—because these bourgeois economists have no concept of exploitation, and their ideology tells them that competition equalizes workers’ wages with the actual value of their contribution—is that the significance of the massive relocation of production to low-wage countries goes far beyond its deflationary effect on global prices. Far more important is that this global shift has also resulted in a huge expansion of surplus value extracted from these workers, most of which is captured by firms based in imperialist countries, thereby sustaining profits and capital accumulation throughout the neoliberal era.

Outsourcing of production to low-wage countries was an alternative to investing in new production facilities in the imperialist countries: it was much more profitable and much less risky to just simply outsource production to low-wage countries and let capitalists in those countries bear all of the risks associated with it, while they turned all of their profits into gambling chips and used them to play on money markets rigged by central banks to guarantee profiteering on a biblical scale. The capitalists’ investment strike was itself a huge deflationary force since a huge amount of demand was removed from the economy and capitalists were no longer investing in new plants and machinery.

On the other side, you’ve got the incredibly inflationary force that is represented by the enormous growth in debt. We’ve seen huge growth of global debt, from 120 percent of global GDP in 1980 to 355 percent of global GDP in 2022. In order to prevent the deflationary forces discussed above from actually resulting in a devastating depression, governments stepped in with massive deficit spending and policies of pumping money into the economy and so on that are themselves very powerful inflationary forces.

So, what’s been building up over the last 30 years and on an even more accelerated scale since the global financial crisis is incredibly powerful deflationary forces that are in a very dynamic, unstable balance with incredibly powerful inflationary forces within the global economy. Up until the end of 2021, it was deflation that was seen as the threat, and inflation was not seen as threatening at all.

The dog hadn’t started to bark. And then suddenly the dog started barking its head off.

What I’d argue is that these contingent events—COVID and the invasion of Ukraine—have destabilized this dynamic equilibrium between deflationary forces and inflationary forces and allowed both to manifest themselves. That’s why Nouriel Roubini is now saying that we’ve entered a protracted period of stagflation, where we have both deflation as in collapsing asset prices and persistent inflation in the prices of goods and services.

Economists who’ve convinced themselves there is no structural, internal, intrinsic reason for inflation to reappear and who blame it entirely on the invasion of Ukraine and the effect of COVID therefore expect that when these transient, contingent events play out over a period of a couple of years then inflation will get back to where it was and we’ll be back in the same ballgame, and once we’ve waited a little bit just to make sure that inflation has been killed then we can start cutting interest rates again.

That’s not going to happen. It’s wishful thinking. Now, the deflationary effect of global outsourcing has already achieved the large majority of its beneficial effects for growth rates on the global scale, and for the health of the imperialist economies is already being felt. There is no new wave of globalization about to happen. Neither can debt continue to grow faster than GDP.

They have no other ways to fix the mess except for escalating their attack on workers within the imperialist countries while attempting to ensure that their competitors are bankrupted, not themselves. Therefore, they have no way out of this crisis. The imperialists are now forced to increasingly attack and try to reverse the concessions which they made to buy class peace, which have been partially financed by the proceeds of super-exploitation in the colonies.

How can workers in imperialist countries hang on to these gains? Sometimes attack is the only form of defence. The events of the past two years have given yet more proof that we need not so much a National Health Service, we need a Global Health Service. The only way that we can hang on to gains such as access to health, education and social security is to struggle to generalize them.

CD: What do you see the role of the Northern working-class in anti-imperialist struggle?

JS: This is where we start to apply our understanding to the actual tasks facing workers on a global scale and how we can actually overcome the disunity and unite the working class at a global level.

Let’s begin by contrast a quote from the Communist Manifesto with something that Lenin said that actually is quite startling in how they appear to conflict. In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848: “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.”

Let’s contrast that with what Lenin said in 1919: “The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie—no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.”

So, when you look at those two statements there, they appear to directly clash with each other. Now, I don’t want to overthrow either of them. I want to try understand the link between them. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa its author, the great Guyanese Marxist Walter Rodney, provides a link between those two statements. He says: “Ever since the mid-19th century, Marx had predicted class collision would come in the form of revolution in which workers would emerge victorious …. However, imperialism introduced a new factor into this situation—one that deferred the confrontation between workers and capitalists in the metropoles.”

I think that Rodney’s absolutely right here to understand why the vision developed in the Communist Manifesto has not come to pass. We have not seen any revolutions or even attempted revolutions in the imperialist countries: the closest we have ever got to a genuinely revolutionary situation was in Germany immediately after the First World War.

The beginning of world social revolution in 1917 in Russia did not extend into the imperialist countries for the reasons that Walter Rodney briefly alludes to: that is, imperialism intervened and the only socialist revolutions to have occurred since 1917 have been in oppressed nations like China, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Rodney’s quote finished by observing that imperialism has “deferred the confrontation between workers and capitalists in the metropoles.” I just think that it has deferred it until now, until the times we are now in.

The attempts to buy more time for capitalist development have now reached their limits. There can be no peaceful capitalist solution to the global crisis that we’re now in.

No matter how far-fetched it might seem, and however impossible it might be, the nature of the crisis itself puts revolution on the agenda in the imperialist countries. We need to organize with this in mind. We need to build a party and to assemble a leadership that does nothing else than express the interests of the working class as a whole. Unless we begin the transition from capitalism in the next decades, then the future of human civilization is absolutely on the line.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Smith has been a socialist and anti-imperialist activist for nearly half a century. He worked in industrial jobs until returning to full-time studies in 2003, leading to the publication in 2016 of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century. He is currently working on a sequel and related projects while continuing with his political activism.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books) and Drinking Up the Revolution (Repeater Books). You can follow him on Twitter @james_m_wilt.

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