China’s Silk Road Imperialism from a Leninist Perspective

Liberals, neo- or not, tend to dismiss Marxist theory as voluntarist drivel, a reflection of evil intentions, not analysis amenable to verification. Hence my surprise the other day in reading this excerpt from the Financial Times in a series on China’s Great Game in Central Asia:

Lenin’s theory that imperialism is driven by capitalist surpluses seems to hold true, oddly, in one of the last (ostensibly) Leninist countries in the world. It is no coincidence that the Silk Road strategy coincides with the aftermath of an investment boom that has left vast overcapacity and a need to find new markets abroad.” (13 Oct 2015, p. 9)

The debate over the economic causes of imperialism survived the crisis in orthodox, state-sanctioned Marxism, in part because it had been incorporated into Third World and World Systems theory then embraced by the anti-globalization movements which taddress the inequities among the most, the more, the less and the least economically developed societies around the globe. Inequities also prevail within each of those sectors.

Here, in what we persist in calling the West, prolonged stagnation of income, pervasive impoverishment and creeping lumpen-proletariatization have meant slumping internal markets. To export their surplus of profit, corporations based in the capitalist democracies now need foreign consumers — the unbridled creation of credit, aka debt, to feed domestic consumption having revealed its shortcomings in 2008.

In China, given its recent boom, the problem is similar, though more acute.

Beijing must find sufficient external demand for its products and goods to avoid recession, depression or even collapse, of the economy first, then of the regime. This is why China must expand into Central Asia. Its province of Xinjiang (New Frontier  新疆, or in its other official, Uyghur transcription شىنجاڭ) as well as the hinterland in the Stans are as important to this recently established, naturally continentally-minded dynasty as its maritime zones of influence, both the seas adjacent to the western Pacific which bear its name (East China Sea, South China Sea), and the “String of Pearls” which connects its prosperous coast through the Strait of Malacca to the Middle East and Europe. From a Leninist, though even from a purely merchantilist perspective, the Trans-Pacific Partnership which excludes China from crucial east Asian and west Pacific markets will push China even more strongly into central Asia.

Lenin’s argument was initially directed against his rival Karl Kautsky’s 1914 typically social-democratic bout of wishful thinking that capitalism’s tendency towards cartel monopoly would lead to a phase of ultra-imperialism in which the great powers subsume their nationalist antagonisms and cooperate jointly in the exploitation of the periphery, thus avoiding war. Lenin correctly saw — retrospectively in 1917, let us note — that the ever-shifting balance of powers among competitive capitalist states precluded such co-operation. Put another way: state politics trump economics.

So it is not odd, in fact the odds favour that the capitalist powers, soon prima inter pares China, will  be drawn into military conflict in a tragic reprise of the internal contradictions which engendered the First World War, but also the first explicitly anti-capitalist revolution, the one associated with Lenin’s name. The next anti-capitalist revolution remains to be imagined. If the past is any measure, it will  follow upon a cataclysm unavoidable as long as the logic of capitalist accumulation prevails as international law.


The Financial Times article can be accessed in on the Uyghur Human Rights Project / UHRP website (no firewall).’s-great-game-new-frontier-old-foes

Lenin’s theory of imperialism:,_the_Highest_Stage_of_Capitalism

World Systems Theory:

Kautsky’s Ultra-imperialism:

China’s Silk Road initiative:

China’s String of Pearls strategy:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP):

Pascal’s Conditional, Subjunctive Wager

Since the age of sixteen, I have entertained discussions with a friend it would not be wrong to call a theologian. For most of our adult lives, we were out of touch, though he was always in my thoughts, the way everything and everyone have always been in our thoughts when we come to think of them again.

Last year, we renewed contact and, naturally, re-engaged with our debate.

One of his thrusts or parries led me to reflect on other stages of my life in which I had not only concourse but friendship and even intercourse with religious persons, learning to speak the terminology of theology and doctrine with them in order to communicate.

His question turned around Pascal’s wager that each and every human bets that God exists, or not. Given that such might be the case and taking into consideration the infinite gain or loss associated with belief, unbelief or disbelief in said God (an eternity in either heaven or hell), per Pascal any rational person ought to live as if God exists and seek to believe in Him. If God did not actually exist, such a losing gambler would suffer not infinite but mere finite loss, measurable because imaginable, pleasures more likely than not sensual, and measured in the end against an infinity in hell.

Though admiring Pascal’s logic, which contributed to probability theory, I was never happy with his assumption that we could “pretend as if we believe” and God wouldn’t know or care about how false any virtue we thereby attained might be. This attitude betrays my Protestant orientation, since I presume that a relationship with God or even with a god would be not only personal but sincere, without mediation.

Ironically, the most telling description I ever heard of this “knowingness” of God was not from a Christian, rather a Muslim, the Imam of one of the first mosques in North America, Al Rashid, founded in Edmonton in the 1930s. In 1986, I ceremoniously converted to Islam in order to marry Nasrin legally in the eyes of the Iranian government — a legal procedure which facilitated her life and lent her a margin of safety in the early years of the Iranian Revolution, when she had to travel back for family reasons. The Sunni Lebanese Imam who married us and who filled out the documents she submitted to the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa was doubtlessly aware that my conversion was factitious. At one point in our discussions about Islam he assured me that it was not important to him if I were sincere in my conversion, since that was a matter between myself and Allah. Allah would know, when the time came to know, what I really thought.

The notion of a panoptic deity is a terrifying one, even more disturbing than that of a panoptic state, of which one extreme model is the eighteenth century prison which Jeremy Bentham imagined and about which Michel Foucault later wrote. Foucault was the consummate Parisian intellectual, hence bore within the crypto-Protestant strain of Catholic Jansenism which remains strong among that national elite — one reason French Communism sank such deep roots. In his later thought, Foucault shifted towards a more orthodox Catholic perspective, arguing that confession to a human authority was the ultimate instrument of power and also of truth about one’s self, not collective observation of our acts. In other words, truth is institutional, not located in one’s own independent thoughts about oneself, or about God.

This passing, peripheral reflexion on privacy and confession is, I would argue, still relevent in this age of social media, selfies, and mass collection of that upstart deity, data.

Mutatis mutandis: Only Lifestyles Have Changed

Perry Anderson concludes his two-part critique of Dmitri Furman, the Russian scholar of comparative religion and, after 1991, post-communist societies, with the remark that Furman “preserved the dignity” of the terms “liberal” and “democrat” — rare enough in either Europe or America. A nice sentiment but a weak conclusion to these longish articles, which are still well worth the reading (LRB, 30 July / 27 Aug, 2015) .

Like Furman himself, Anderson draws upon a impressive range of learning. There is much to be gleaned from both reviewer and reviewed about the impact and nature of major world religions, as well as about power and politics in the gamut of post-Soviet societies. the swoop which extends from the Baltic states down across eastern Europe to Moldava and Ukraine and those on both sides of the Caucasus, then on to the Stans in central Asia.

Dmitri Furman’s shift from the sociology of religion to that of politics is telling. Since he had imagined that Soviet society as constituted prior to 1991 was capable of reform, perestroika and glasnost, the downfall of Gorbachev jolted him to change field of study. He wanted to explain the intricacies of the former Soviet colonies and what these might reveal about the future of Russia itself.

Perry Anderson himself was formed intellectually just before the ferment of the sixties, but already in 1962, he had assumed the editorship of the New Left Review, with which he is still associated. In fact, the two pieces in the London Review of Books coincide with the publication of the August, 2015 issue of New Left Review 94, which he edited, Incommensurate Russia.

There is no need to resurrect here the debates which prevailed in Western Marxist circles in those years, and I would not be the most objective person to do so. Suffice it to say that the underlying temper of the times, which was utopian, romantic, some would say adolescent, did not lend itself to Realpolitik. In the sixties and for a while into the seventies, even those committed to transforming the world, to use Marx’s phrase, were tempted to imagine that it would be enough just to change lifestyles. Mutatis mutandis: not much has changed, except lifestyles.

Geistesgeschichte, the discipline at hand here, does have explanatory powers, despite its weakness for the metaphor of entelechy — the innate unfolding towards its telos of something botanical, as if ideas were plants. The history of ideas can also slip easily into the embrace of mesmerizing ideals. Such comes with the territory, since ideals are in part ideas. Any idea, when it becomes compelling, can metamorphose into an ideal. That is one of the underlying themes of what we have idealized as Greek philosophy and the myths upon which it is based.

For Furman, democracy and the drive toward it was real enough to speak of “imitation [as opposed to real] democracies”, like the simulacra which arose in  the post-Soviet world and have now found their fully realized form under Vladimir Putin in Russia — the dog here being shaken by its tail.

Yet we should ask ourselves if it is sufficient to qualify as a legitimate “non-imitation” democracy just to have a system which allows alternation between, say, US Republicans and Democrats, instruments as they are of two adverse camps within the same oligarchy? Just maybe all mainstream parliamentary and constitutional democracies are “imitations”, as Luciano Canfora asserts in La democrazia: storia di un’ideologia. They all need glasnost and perestroika.

Misplaced Anxieties of Green Ecology?

  • Ecologists should turn their attention from mere global warming to a more frightful threat. What happens to the environment after we humans have our first full thermonuclear war, the chances of which are greater than than most think, according to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists? Some optimistic specialists argue that in a bad but not worse case scenario several billion, about half of us, might survive. Any way you cut the cake, that catastrophe poses far greater danger to humanity and to the present state of nature than a few carbon-induced degrees of heat distributed across the planet.

Here is a real world game theory problem to work out: how much effort is it rational to put into staving off global warming, whose consequences may be manageable, as opposed to striving desperately to prevent nuclear war, which, if it does happen, will eliminate the very possibility of the game in which this question can be asked?

Or does it make any difference?