Canadian imperialism and revolutionary defeatism

Imperialism is piracy transplanted from the seas to dry land; piracy reorganized, consolidated and adapted to the aim of exploiting the natural and human resources of our peoples. The imperialist phenomenon has been a historical necessity, a consequence of the impetus given by the productive forces and of the transformations of the means of production in the general context of humanity.

Amilcar Cabral, in his speech to the first conference of the Tricontinental of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in January, 1966, Havana Cuba.

Imperialism is the irregular, loud, recurring beat in the pulse in the circuit of capitalist production; the violent energy that reaches out to grab and pull resources in; the elastic that fires consumer goods out beyond the usual markets to sell those things that cannot be sold at home. We use the term “circuit” because the model of capitalist production is a closed loop where a capitalist invests money into property, raw materials, machinery; and labour power into manufacturing goods, which are then sold and the profits from this sale re-invested back into production. When the always-growing demands of this circuit of production come up against a competitor, a fight ensues, and the strongest wins. When the demands of these competitors – as a whole group – comes up against the borders of the country they call home, a fight ensues, and the government wages a border war to take resources from within the borders of weaker nations, and to dominate the markets of weaker peoples.

Imperialism is “overripe” capitalism – it is the expansion of profit outside of its local circuit because of the godly rule of accumulation that trumps the sovereignty of non capitalist economies and regions. Imperialism is an inevitability in our historical moment, when massive monopolies war to absorb each other, and the US-dominant world is dying but a world without capitalism cannot yet be born. Imperialism makes capital global, pushes rival capitalists into contest and eventually war with each other over rivalrous control over militarily and economically weaker countries and regions. Canada, despite its small population, is a powerful imperialist country with its own distinct imperialist interests as well as its own alliances of opportunity with the US, Britain, and Europe.

Imperial identities

British imperialists founded the Canadian nation state as a home branch of their empire. In the years after Confederation, white settlers in the west fought to establish the west as a “white man’s country” where whites are entitled to property carved out of Indigenous lands, and Asian settlers and African American and Caribbean peoples are not welcome. White settlers – including Anglophone workers – identified with British imperialism: in 1907 they carried the Union Jack and sang “Rule Britannia” while smashing windows along Pender Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Although formal multiculturalism has modified the original Anglo-singularity of Canadianness, the imperial roots of Canadian belonging have remained. Imperialism’s double helix is imperial culture operating in the hearts and minds of the Canadian working class, and imperial power operating as Canada’s “foreign policy,” competing with and going to war against Canadian capitalists’ competitors. Imperial culture is what the Bolsheviks referred to as the “aristocracy of labour”: that section of the global working class whose “temporary interests” received “a certain benefit” through imperialist policy; specifically “the higher wages that could be paid to workers out of capitalists’ superprofits.” The aristocracy of labour became bloated in Canada during the postwar boom, as labour unions made deals with capital in exchange for higher wages and standards of living for their members.

The end of a new imperial power

Since the labour peace years ended with neoliberal austerity and anti-union attacks, and especially since the great recession of 2007, this “aristocracy” has campaigned for Canadian imperial power, motivated by a racist nostalgia for the good ol’ days of post-war prosperity. To recover the financial security of the postwar years, some private sector unionists argue for increased imperial exploitation of tar sands to retrench imperialist theft from Indigenous nations, and professionals and public sector unionists (represented in the BC NDP) call for a sort of trade war with China to continue the status quo of Canada’s beneficiary position in a US-dominated global economy.

Since the fall of the USSR in the 1990s, imperial power has mostly been expressed in trade agreements that facilitate the internationalization of capital. Although US wars have continued to define global power, they have been wars and occupations of domination – the accoutrements of the new “free trade” world administered by spaces of economic, political, and military inter-imperialist collaboration, like the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, and NATO. But the years of cooperation between imperialist powers seem to be ending alongside the end of the US’s post-1991 rule as the world’s only superpower. In this power shift, China is not merely a place, it is an idea that threatens the Anglo-American liberal world order.

The 2007 world recession may have been the turning point in the US’s unchallenged global hegemony. While the US lost 14 million jobs in 2007, China lost nearly 30 million. But by 2010, the US had not recovered any of those lost jobs, while China had recovered all but 12 million. The economic policies of China have proved better suited to managing crisis and collapse, whereas the Anglo-American models of state capital management have not. The sort of welfare-state concessions to white workers that ruled the US and Canada in the 1950s-60s came out of a time of boom and sharing in imperialist superprofits. In the depression of the 1930s and the recession of 2007, the Anglo-US model of capitalist state management refused a bailout to the unemployed. But China quickly intervened to stop a depression. In this context, and in a time of unpredictability and crisis, the prospect of China’s growth against American crisis increases the prospects of Chinese challenge to Anglo-American hegemony.

Such an unstable shift in global power was also a global dynamic in the lead-up to World War I at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Socialist International collapsed at the outset of war in August 1914 precisely because many of the anti-capitalist parties supported their own countries and governments in the war. This tied these parties to the interests of their national capitalist classes and aligned their political goals with that of empire. The first casualty of this turn was the end of the Second International organization of socialist parties. Contact between member parties was broken off and instead, working class people met each other across fields of battle in the trenches of the First World War.

Revisiting the WWI anti-imperialist position of “revolutionary defeatism”

The opportunity of inter-imperialist war is for radical anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists to strengthen their connections with each other, across lines of national difference, and to break their nationalist ties to their own ruling classes and end their toxic allegiances to their national-imperial cultures. In September 1915, 42 delegates from 11 countries met in the first international conference of socialist currents opposed to World War I, held September 5-8, 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The resulting “Zimmerwald Manifesto” helped inspire a mass movement of antiwar and socialist activists across the warring countries of Europe.

The basic idea of Zimmerwald was revolutionary defeatism: “a parallel struggle by the workers of each country against their own imperialism, as their primary and most immediate enemy.” This principle united workers against war with an eye to toppling capitalist-imperialist power in each of their countries. Vladimir Lenin, one of the authors of the Zimmerwald Manifesto and a leader in the Russian anti-capitalist movement, argued, “The opponents of the [revolutionary defeatism] slogan are simply afraid of themselves when they refuse to recognize the very obvious fact of the inseparable link between revolutionary agitation against the government and helping bring about its defeat.”

As organizers in renter and homeless communities, we have experienced the counter power present in these spaces that communities carve out, apart from state governance and dominating civil society. These spaces create the basis for a dual power: independent of the rule of Canada’s colonial government and capitalist economy, they are places where we can develop non-capitalist and non-colonial property forms based on the use of and relations with land rather than a static, authoritative and bounded property regime under the hegemony of Canadian settler law.

Karl Leibknecht, in 1915, argued, “Every people’s main enemy is in their own country!” He said “is in” because he is referring to the capitalist class. In our case, as Canada goes to war in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, and increases trade wars and stokes Yellow Peril panic against China, we see that our main enemy is this country, including those who compose the state. Revolutionary defeatism does not mean that we are cheering for the victory of China against Canada; it means that we are working for the defeat of Canada in all cases – and that we must develop ties and alliances with workers in China so that we can support them in their fight against their state, which is their primary enemy.