So many important lessons about the legacy of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution are distorted in capitalist educational institutions. One significant fact that is routinely excluded (or misrepresented) is the extent to which the Revolution galvanized anti-colonial movements across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Millions of workers were inspired to fight back against their colonial oppressors, and to utilize the tools provided by Marxist-Leninism to amplify anti-imperialist struggle. While the fight was well under way in many parts of the globe, 1917 marked a turning point for anti-colonial movements. It signaled to millions of workers not only that it was possible to end capitalist imperialism, but that it was necessary to destroy the system completely by simultaneously building towards socialism.
Capitalism and colonialism: A brief history of infinite violence
It is impossible to trace the history of capitalism without seeing its connections to colonial conquest and brutality. In fact, imperialism was (and still is) a key driving force of capitalist growth across the globe. Early forms of expansionist capitalism, led by Spain and Portugal, provided means for the raw extraction of mass profits that started to flow from the “peripheral” territories into Europe, bringing with it unimaginable cruelty for the native inhabitants. One example of this insatiable lust for mineral goods is the Potosi silver mine in what is now Bolivia.
Russian Revolution at 100
Recounted in Eduardo Galeano’s seminal study of Iberico imperialism, "Open Veins of Latin America," the Spanish extracted so much silver from the Potosi mine place it is possible to build a bridge of silver that spans from Potosi to Madrid. At the same time, another bridge could be built with the bones of the millions who perished in the mines, including both indigenous peoples and those enslaved from the West Coast of Africa, which the Spanish turned to only after the native populations were decimated after 1518. It is important to remember that slavery was not an offshoot of this emergent economic system, but a compulsory form that capital required in order to survive.
The thirst for gold and silver was soon replaced by the need to dominate the land through the establishment of plantations across the Caribbean, expanding later across the Americas. As John Bellamy Foster points out in "The Vulnerable Planet," on his second voyage to the “new world” in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought several stalks of sugar cane that he salvaged from the Canary Islands, an area that was part of Spain’s expanding empire into North Africa. Columbus’ intention was to construct slave-based plantations that would eventually produce a key commodity for the development of the global economy. This drive to exploit these resources sparked early forms of inter-imperialist rivalry between England, France, Spain, and Portugal. The legacy of sugar monoculture is twofold: it led to the forcible exportation of millions of Africans, while it also destroyed the local economies of the dispossessed populations, forcing the peripheries to become forever dependent on the impositions of the global economy.
We can see what this legacy of dependency has done to someplace like Haiti, where centuries of forcible extraction, debt, and land-theft have left the entire population without the means to subsist independently. In the immediate aftermath of the anti-colonial struggle won by the Haitians, France (heavily assisted by the U.S.) surrounded the island with its navy and demanded the repayment of all lost property—meaning former slaves, in an amount that exceeded 50,000,000 Francs. The do-or-die contract demanded by the French, compounded by a crippling economic embargo imposed by the U.S. and Britain on the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, effectively re-enslaved Haiti to more than a century of debt-servicing, and is still very much part of the inheritance of impoverishment that plagues its existence. As the Haiti example illustrates, the implementation of debt bondage can be thought of as a parable for the lived-experience of uneven development and center-periphery dependency imposed by imperialist violence. From the infancy of mercantile capitalism to its contemporary configuration in the “new” imperialism enforced through what David Harvey labels the “accumulation by dispossession” paradigm, the commodification of labor-power and the super-exploitation of bodies in the relentless drive for profit has been the propelling force of capitalist globalization.
By the 19th century, the dominant imperialist powers had colonized much of the globe in search of sought-after resources—such as copper, rubber, tea, and diamonds, as well as cheaper forms of labor—which fueled the development industrial capitalism in Europe. After plundering the resources in the Americas, the focus was now on Africa, which by 1886 had been carved up by England, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In this period the dominant capitalist powers reaped massive profits, which led to intensified inter-imperialist rivalry. For the subjects of the imperialist powers, this meant mass social and ecological destruction. One notable example is the German genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia. After resisting German colonization for decades, the Herero were subjected to collective punishment by the Germans in a murderous campaign of extermination, which included the use of concentration camps for displaced Herero populations. Herero women were forced to participate in human experimentation, overseen by the German Eugenicist Eugene Fisher, whose “mixed-race” theory would become the basis for Nazi racist ideology. (It is worth noting that Fisher’s protégé was Joseph Mengele, the Nazi “doctor” who used Jewish prisoners and Romani children for human testing at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War.)
The legacy of violence, dispossession, and wealth extraction/accumulation is not external to capitalist reproduction, but rather a fundamental element that of the process of accumulation in 21st-century capitalism. Yet, this history of genocide has been consistently reshaped and distorted by institutional forces, both in its liberal and conservative formation, not to mention by emergent neo-fascist contingents. One means of celebrating the achievements of the 1917 October Revolution is to expose the symbiotic relationship between colonialism and capitalist expansion, and turn it into fuel for agitation, struggle, and anti-capitalist political organizing. The first to do so systematically was V.I. Lenin.
Lenin’s theory of imperialism and anti-imperialist struggle in the third world
Lenin’s contribution to revolutionary history is incalculable, particularly for anti-imperialist organizers and militants who spend their lives struggling against the onslaught of colonialist expansion. His theory of imperialism greatly expanded the understanding of how capitalism reaches beyond its borders in the search for “new” markets, cheap raw materials, and fresh labor—essential for capital’s destructive growth.
Central to Lenin’s argument is that imperialism is a process integral to the accumulation drive of capitalism. By the end of the 19th century, Lenin argued, “free competition” among the dominant capitalist states evolved into “monopolies,” which resulted from repeated waves of crises that hastened the merger and acquisition process, leading to ever more massive units of capital in both industry and banking. As can be seen more clearly in present-day capitalism, this situation tended to focus power within “finance oligarchies,” who began to dictate the terms of all economic activity across the globe.
As these monopolies grew in size they accumulated massive surpluses; profitable investment opportunities overseas led to the growth of “export capital,” which ultimately helped to stave off crisis in the domestic economy. This stimulated the internationalization of production, allowing capital to exploit pools of cheap labor; it also meant the sharpening of inter-capitalist rivalry over key resources. By the late 19th century, “the territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed,” Lenin wrote. (It was only later, in the early 20th century as a result of the world wars, that the U.S. and Japan asserted their own spheres of control.) Lenin argued that nation-state competition for predominance over the global economy was inevitable, representing the “latest stage” of capitalist development. In this stage, imperialism becomes a key force, impacting the very logic of the capitalist system. This inter-imperialist rivalry over which facet of the globalized capitalist oligarchy comes out on top is still a consistent feature of capitalism, especially in the contemporary form of globalization, and has the potential to sharpen into global war, just as it did in 1914.
In short, while capitalism had always been a globalizing system, based on the forcible extraction of resources from peripheral areas to the centralized nation-states of Europe and later the U.S. and Japan, Lenin saw this “new” stage as one in which “inter-imperialist rivalry” enveloping the entire globe, leaving massive devastation in its wake—especially for people in the historic Third World, but for all workers subjected to its twisted logic.
Even within Lenin’s lifetime, nationalist and revolutionary movements emerged across the colonized world, galvanized by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the historical weakness of the imperialist powers as the world was plunged into global war (itself a consequence of economic crisis and inter-imperialist rivalry itself). Incorporating the tools of Marxist-Leninism for grasping the material reality of the state of the world under inter-imperialist domination, militants working within decolonizing movements across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean began to develop strategies to resist imperialism. Part of this strategy included linking their struggles to international communism under the rubric of the Comintern, which was established by the Soviet Union to advocate for revolution across the globe. Revolutionary thinkers, such as Mao Tse-Tung, W. E. B. DuBois, Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Bhagat Singh, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Thomas Sankara (Africa’s “Che” Guevara), Ahmed Messali Hadj, Jose Carlos Mariátegui, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Amilcar Cabral, just to name a few, all drew inspiration from the Bolshevik Revolution and applied Marxist-Leninism to their respective locals and situations.
This helped fortify and unite anti-imperialist formations. By 1945, at the tail end of another ruinous war among the dominant imperialist powers, international organizations, like 5th Pan-African Congress, were putting anti-imperialism front and center of the discussion of national liberation against the colonialist powers, now weakened by the devastating war. By 1949, Mao had led China to victory over Japanese imperialism, galvanizing revolutionary fervor of in the entire region. As the anti-imperialist revolutionary and militant Amilcar Cabral wrote: “How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.”
While we can cite many limitations of the various struggles for national liberation, socialism, and the Third World Project overall, there are a number of consistent lessons to be learned from and built upon. It is crucial that we rooting our strategies in anti-imperialist struggle—as part of a global strategy that speaks to the plight of the billions of workers in the global South, where the full brunt of imperialist violence is felt—if we are to have any success beyond the narrow confines of the liberal democratic state. The lessons of the Bolsheviks and the various forms of anti-imperialist struggles across the historical Third World reveal the true meaning of internationalism, and the determination to end the perpetual system of exploitation, fascism, and inter-imperialist war, which is currently advancing before us. For those of us dedicated to revolutionary politics, taking control of this history is a crucial step towards the building of international solidarity in the fightback against capitalist globalization and emergent neo-fascism, which is rearing its ugly head across the globe.
First published in MR Online on Oct. 20, 2017.
John Maerhofer is an activist and educator based in New York City, where he teaches English and interdisciplinary studies at CUNY. His recent article on the Maoist movement in India is forthcoming in International Critical Thought.