The Guardian • Issue #1950

Social imperialism: its history and effects

In some sections of the international communist movement today, China is characterised as imperialist, capitalist, or “social imperialist.” Despite being around since the turn of the last century, the phrase “social imperialism” really took flight when the international communist movement split in the 1960s under the weight of the divisions between the Soviet Union and China.

But what is social imperialism? Communists and non-communists use this phrase to mean wildly differing things. To understand social imperialism, we must understand the conditions out of which the phrase arose and the nature of imperialism more generally.

World War II presents us with perhaps the clearest manifestation of the shades of imperialism. Capitalism had split its imperial armies into three divisions: the first was “anti-fascist” but was still colonial and imperialist (UK, France, Australia, etc.); the second was allegedly “neutral” section took care of the banking (Switzerland, Sweden, US, etc.); the third was the unification of the most aggressive bourgeois forces (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan). The initial skirmishes that took place were between the first and third of these wings of imperialism. The results were a redivision of the world’s resources between these two camps with the “democratic” imperialists being overcome by the fascist Axis with the creation of Vichy France and collaborationist governments all over Europe.

The “democratic” wing of the bourgeois imperialists added the US who left the “neutral” camp as the Japanese started to dominate Asia and the Pacific – a territory that the US felt complimented their holdings in Latin America and the Pacific. US imperialism worked through ostensibly independent but comprador governments in Latin America but had consolidated holdings in the Pacific by assuming overt control. Australia became a major strategic partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific during this war, as significant US forces were concentrated in the inter-imperialist conflict in Asia and the Pacific.

Thus, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, the war taking place was not concerned with liberation but with claiming territories and resources to exploit for profits. Imperialism here is evident in that rich economies were vying to develop monopolies in other lands.

However, a different strategy was adopted by the Soviet Union, the Communist International, and workers’ movements. For starters, the war was defensive, rather than aggressive. The USSR only entered the war after it was attacked by Axis forces. The basis of its defensive position came from the division between the imperialist camps where it developed a broad anti-fascist movement, assisting the exploited masses in their wars of liberation, which pushed out the fascist forces. This revolutionary tactic opened new fronts against the imperialists throughout the world and led to the independence of many dozens of nations around the globe. Many countries occupied by the Japanese launched wars of liberation such as China, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar. These wars of liberation and independence struggles are still an ongoing feature of the region. Currently, one of the most significant is in West Papua, which is held under Indonesian dominance as a base for US mining interests.

Here, the non-bourgeois elements worked to put power in the exploited masses’ hands and free them from imperialism’s yoke, reclaiming territory and resources to ensure their sovereignty and betterment of their peoples.

Social imperialism: Lenin’s definition

In the above, we have developed an understanding of imperialism in action. So if imperialism is to be understood as the development of capitalist forces competing for resources in other regions, spurred on by the emergence of the dominance of monopolies and finance capital, what is “social imperialism?” In Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin develops the theory of social imperialism, using it to characterise the betrayals of the social democratic parties of Europe. Here, Lenin describes the situation as it existed in Europe in the lead-up to World War I:

“The enormous dimensions of finance capital concentrated in a few hands and creating an extraordinarily dense and widespread network of relationships and connections which subordinates not only the small and medium, but also the very small capitalists and small masters, on the one hand, and the increasingly intense struggle waged against other national state groups of financiers for the division of the world and domination over other countries, on the other hand, cause the propertied classes to go over entirely to the side of imperialism. ‘General’ enthusiasm over the prospects of imperialism, furious defence of it and painting it in the brightest colours – such are the signs of the times. Imperialist ideology also penetrates the working class. No Chinese Wall separates it from the other classes. The leaders of the present-day, so-called, ‘Social-Democratic’ Party of Germany are justly called ‘social-imperialists,’ that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds; but as early as 1902, Hobson noted the existence in Britain of ‘Fabian imperialists’ who belonged to the opportunist Fabian Society.”

In these circumstances, the social democratic parties provided support for their bourgeoisies’ colonial policies and supported their capitalist governments in WW1. As these parties have evolved, they have become a mainstay of imperialism and are in opposition to the revolutionary proletariat. This opposition is based on the system of imperialism that has as its core the enslavement of other nations and the bribing of a layer of the working class.

In colonial settler states such as Israel, Australia, and New Zealand, this layer has formed into a political party of capitalism in the form of the “labour” parties. For example, The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has supported wars of imperialist aggression, including the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They support international violations of the refugee rights through the offshore detention of migrants who arrive by sea.

Thus, in the above, social imperialism refers to those parties and individuals in the imperialist countries who advocate for certain “social” policies which benefit workers to some extent, but ultimately reject radical change to the capitalist system and support the imperialist policies of the state.

Social imperialism in the ALP

As mentioned above, social imperialism is alive and well today, particularly in the ALP. Thus, it will serve us well to have a deeper look at the ALP and its relationship to Australia’s communist movement and how it promotes social imperialism.

It is crucial to understand that the general character of the ALP is set by the strengths and weaknesses in extra-parliamentary organisations. As a result, the ALP has adopted an aggressive and mixed attitude towards communists, depending on the latter’s influence in trade unions. Draconian election laws and acts against the trade unions were instituted (and still are) in order to drive communists out of the unions. In contradiction to this, a united front policy was able to be built to defeat legislation banning the Communist Party in 1951.

However, regardless of the attitude to the workers’ movements in Australia, the ALP has supported imperialist actions, as other social democratic parties have across the world. For example, despite the major reforms the Whitlam government enacted, such as the abolition of tertiary fees, the Whitlam government continued imperialist practices. This is evident in Whitlam ignoring Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor which, according to the Lowy Institute, was in part because “communist rule in Dili was as inimical to Australia’s interests as it was intolerable to Jakarta.”

The ALP’s social imperialist character was further crystallised with the election of the Bob Hawke government. Hawke, a former ACTU president, was the perfect choice for a party claiming to represent workers. With Hawke as Prime Minister, reforms that were considered too extreme from the Whitlam era were rolled back, and he readmitted rebel unions and rightist Catholic forces to the ALP. Like Whitlam, while big social programs like Medicare were enacted and equality was championed for apartheid South Africa, both of these are dwarfed by the ALP’s other decisions in government. With Medicare came the Prices and Incomes Accord, which severely harmed the union movement. And while looking like a human rights champion, like Whitlam was seen as with the withdrawal from the Vietnam War, Hawke continued the ALP’s social imperialism, particularly in its grab of East Timorese oil which accumulated in the Timor Gap Treaty. Indeed Lenin’s words, “socialists in words and imperialists in deeds,” couldn’t be more accurate when describing the ALP.

Thus, the ALP, like social democratic parties across the world, pretends to represent the working class, through the connections shared between leadership in the ALP and the union movement. However, its reforms do not go past capitalism, and continue its exploitation. When it comes to foreign policy, the ALP is a party still dedicated to imperialist actions, either directly with its relationships with Asia Pacific nations, or in collaboration with US imperialism, as noted above with the wars in the Middle East.

Warping Marxism: social imperialism transformed

One of the worst setbacks of the last period was the competition between the Soviet Union and China in the international communist movement, which led to differing ideological developments and mistrust. The Sino-Soviet split put a tremendous amount of pressure on the international communist movement, which allowed developments of opportunism – of both left and rightist deviation – to appear. One of the results of this competition was the transformation of what the term “social imperialism” is often used to signify.

In Australia, this played out with the transformation of the CPA after the events of the Prague Spring. The deviation that occurred was the transition from Marxism-Leninism towards what is commonly referred to as “Eurocommunism.” The Eurocommunists disavowed the socialist revolution in practice under the guise of “Anti-Stalinism” and opposition to “authoritarianism.” In general, the “destalinisation” of communist parties spread division and confusion, which challenged support for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Other opportunist deviations have been successfully promoted by the US imperialists, who added whole schools of “Marxism,” such as the Frankfurt School, to their arsenals. The Western imperialists played up to each “Marxist” tendency in different ways and assisted in increasing the divisions. In addition to denouncing “Stalinism” and opposing the Soviet Union’s “authoritarianism,” was the characterisation of the Soviet Union as a “social imperialist power.” And it is here where the warping of the term “social imperialism” emerges, that Lenin’s words “socialists in words and imperialists in deeds,” are distorted.

What made the Soviet Union a “social imperialist power?” According to those who categorise the Soviet Union as such, Soviet aid was one element of its imperialist character. That despite claims that it was a workers’ state, Soviet assistance was in fact a nefarious plot by the USSR to leverage vulnerable countries into allowing them to exploit their resources. Thus for those who criticised the USSR, the Soviet Union only proclaimed socialism but was in fact imperialist.

Social imperialism applied today

As a result, several communist parties have developed a concept that China, and similarly Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and the DPRK are not socialist countries. That China, in particular, is now practising some form of “social imperialism,” that its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a form of this imperialism. This theory is strongest amongst those who initially held to the view that the Soviet Union was social imperialist. They have now transferred this theory to China. It is based on the premise that capitalist companies and capitalists exist in China.

The understanding of imperialism by these observers is usually based on simplistic statements. That by advancing loans in the form of investments in infrastructure, China has somehow become the new slave master. These views are conveniently repeated by the capitalists who accuse China of new forms of exploitation. These same capitalists will state that the US and other imperialist forces are only interested in bringing “democracy” to these nations.

Neither the Soviet aid nor the Chinese BRI induces dependency. In fact, the Communist Party of China has studied the experiences of Soviet aid practices, and has developed the socialist policy of mutually beneficial cooperation in trade and development. The Chinese model challenges imperialist dependency while respecting non-interference.

The demise of the Soviet Union gave us new experiences in colour revolutions and began to force a reassessment in the international communist movement. It became clear that right up until the counter-revolution the Soviet Union remained a socialist country. Some of the internal factors contributing to the demise of socialism in the USSR were the difficulties it encountered in carrying forward timely reforms to increase productivity, dealing with corruption and subversion, and over-reliance on military might to combat imperialist imposition.

China and Vietnam paved a new road forward and made timely reforms to remove the structural hindrances to labour productivity. Work has been done in practice on Stalin’s theory that socialism only modifies the law of value, that the true measure of socialism is the raising of the material and cultural standards of the people, which is facilitated by the working-class state, Communist Party leadership on the basis of Marxism-Leninism, and planned development facilitated by maintained state ownership of key sectors. By these measures, China and Vietnam are building socialism. The other advance is the resurrection of the understanding that so long as commodity production remains a necessity, capitalist restoration remains a threat. The deepening of socialism requires ongoing reforms to bring forth the creative powers of the people. The development of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat needs to keep pace with the development of the proletariat as the ruling class.

The negative attitude towards China outlined above only assists the imperialists in their war ambitions. It is used to turn working people in the capitalist countries not just against China but against socialism in general. It thus provides a “left” cover for anti-communism.

This “left” anti-communism becomes a feature of these “left” groups’ activity. Their opposition to the actual development of a unified communist party is justified by their idea that the communist parties are actually agents of this other kind of imperialism.


The adoption of social imperialism as a label applied to communist parties is not scientifically accurate. The situation of the social imperialists in the capitalist countries is based on a layer existing in those societies and is at the behest of the big bourgeoisie.

When this is applied to the socialist nations, it is on the basis that capitalism has been restored in those countries. So far in all the counter-revolutions where capitalism has been restored, it has seen the liquidation of the communist parties and the abolition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The leading role of that class, expressed through communist parties, has been abolished. Even in Yugoslavia, which had long weakened the proletarian dictatorship and the Party, a counter-revolution was still required to overthrow the position of the working people.

This application of the theory of social imperialism is usually accompanied by ultra-left utopian concepts, with socialism being defined in simplistic terms. “Workers still work for wages, profits are made, capitalist investments have occurred!” Thus, the argument is advanced that socialism has been abolished, and a new ruling class has been created. These concepts advance on Trotsky and his followers who argued that a “Thermidor” had set in, that the Soviet Union was, at best, a deformed workers’ state. Or worse, that a form of state capitalism – another term used by Lenin and misused by left anti-communists – was being created, as according to Zinoviev.

The modern theorists of “social imperialism” need to be combatted. It is imperative that proper, scientific analysis be done, that the material conditions be properly assessed. As communists, we must strive to move away from dogmatic interpretations of Marxism-Leninism but instead have a dialectical one. Most importantly, we must be willing to educate and dispel myths about actually existing socialism to help further the cause of the international communist movement.

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