Against Social-Imperialism in the DSA

Any socialist movement that doesn’t reject loyalty to its own countries imperialist ventures and hegemony promotes national chauvinism that divides the global working class. These tendencies must be struggled against politically and ideologically. 

The pro-imperialist wing of the SPD that set the state of modern social-democracy.

The idea of a “Growing Chinese threat” to America is typically a talking point on Fox News. Yet on the national DSA’s blog this talking point, typically meant to shore up militarism and nationalism, is used as an argument for how social-democratic reforms can comfortably stand side by side with the needs of US imperialism to compete as a global hegemon against China. While the Communist League does not support any sides in inter-imperialist wars and are revolutionary defeatists, we also recognize the primacy of opposing imperialism and militarism in our home countries. This particularly counts in the U.S., the global hegemon of world imperialism.

One of the primary principles of any liberatory socialism is to promote the unity of the working class across national boundaries and to oppose imperialism, through militant action if possible. While DSA is a multi-tendency org, this shouldn’t mean “anything goes,” and that statements which implicitly promote national chauvinism and imperialist politics in the name of socialism should be tolerated. Yet, at the same time, it’s best to let the pro-imperialists reveal themselves so anti-imperialists in the DSA can openly criticize and refute their arguments, hopefully pushing the org to a more anti-imperialist stance where such positions are not acceptable in this organization. If anything, it reveals the fact that the DSA hasn’t fully broken with its pro-imperialist past.

The article I am referring to in this case is The Future China-U.S Competition and Democratic Socialism by Daniel Casey Adkins. While this post was on the national DSA page and claimed to not represent all members of DSA, the fact that the leadership of national allowed it to be published represents a continuing trend of social-imperialism in the organization or justifications for imperialism that are framed in pro-socialist rhetoric. While the article tries to deny the imperialist nature of its political logic by claiming “These goals need to be shared around the world…” and “[declaring war on climate change] will allow us to combat climate change and lead to a developed world free of unequal dominating nations and classes,” these are just pleas against the actual implications of the arguments Adkins makes. It’s easy to remember that the social-imperialist wing of the workers’ movement has always tried to frame their arguments in terms favorable to the goals of the worker’s movement. One only has to remember the Iraq War being supported by leftists on the basis that it was bringing democracy to Iraq against the despot Saddam, or when the AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War due to improved bargaining power in war industries. Rather than taking these pleas of internationalism seriously, we should look at the actual political content that makes up the majority of the article.

This tendency of pro-imperialist socialism goes back to the revisionist wing of the 2nd International led by Bernstein. Revisionists argued that socialists should support colonialism in the name of “spreading development”, an argument which would set the stage for the party to lead the working class into the slaughter of World War I. However, before moving on to discuss the content of the DSA article and its positions, I will first provide a general definition of imperialism.

Imperialism is a disputed topic in Marxism. We cannot simply copy and paste Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as a new stage in capitalism, regardless of what insights it includes. Arguably imperialism is a tendency that ALL capitalist states are compelled to engage in, since they exist in a world market structured by imperialist hierarchies. While not all states are imperialist, no state in the global economy can escape having to adjust its policy to reflect the pressures of imperialist competition. Economically powerful countries are able to use their developmental advantage to create a military hegemony over weaker nations, imposing policies on these nations that are beneficial economically for the stronger country and enforce economic backwardness on the weaker country. This can happen through direct colonial domination such as the British, French, Dutch, German and Japanese Empires before the rise of decolonization, or what is referred to as formal Empire.

After the rise of bourgeois revolutions in the colonies against colonial occupation, the nature of imperialism shifted towards an informal empire. Rather than direct colonial rule, previously colonized nations had formal self-government with their own developmental nation states. Yet these states were still economically dependent on the world market and were forced to implement policies that were beneficial for the reigning imperialist hegemon. An informal empire of the US and its allies in the postwar order emerged, primarily focusing on containment of the USSR’s influence on global national liberation movements to ensure a global market favorable to US capitalism. Now with the fall of the USSR, the U.S. can be seen as entering a new phase of inter-imperialist competition, this time with Russia and China. The U.S. aims to maintain its hegemony in the global hierarchy of states, which is arguably already in a period of relative decline. To secure the legitimacy of this project, the U.S. needs to win the proletariat over to the ideologies of militarism and nationalism. Advancing such interests under the guise of “socialism” only helps build up the legitimacy of U.S. militarism.

So imperialism is essentially a global system, where different nations compete for military hegemony and in turn economic superiority that enforces an inequality of nations in the global system of nation-states. The world market, which through an aggregation of capitalist states, enforces the law of value, creating an international anarchy of competition where imperialist rivalry becomes inevitable. Capitalist nation-states are compelled to compete to carve out markets to offset the tendency for profits to fall, thus creating imperialist tensions between nation-states. While some would argue for a theory of ultra-imperialism where the U.S. and its allies have simply created a single global market for enforcing free trade in the developing world, inter-imperialist tensions between capitalist states have still developed. In this case, China and the U.S. are concerned about control of opening markets in developing Africa. Daniel Casey Adkins correctly notices China is a rising world power that is going to compete with the U.S. for hegemony in the global world system. However, rather than taking a proper socialist stance which argues that the working class should have no loyalty to their own bourgeoisie and unite across borders, Adkins argues for social-democracy as a way to empower U.S. world domination in the face of China’s rising economic power:

“The US and China will compete more directly both economically and politically in the next decade. The competition may strain American politics and change the US political balance if the US is to be more than second place to China. The US will become second if left to its current politics and the goals of its 1%. To compete with mercantilism, our nation needs to be organized by democratic socialism whose goal is to empower its entire people, not just the 1%.”

The article begins with a social-imperialist assertion – that we must bolster our nation’s economy in order to prevent us from becoming “second to China”. This is not an argument based in the class struggle, but is rooted in nationalism and patriotism putting one’s own country first before the needs of the international working class. Nothing is said about the need to unite Chinese and American workers in a common struggle against their exploiters. Rather, American workers need to put America first and fight for social-democratic policies because they will benefit the strength of the U.S. Empire, and maintain our hegemonic status. Ideologically this promotes xenophobic ideas about the Chinese undermining American values pushing a “yellow peril” narrative that has long run throughout American history, though expressed in technocratic policy wonk speak rather than racialized tropes. This has more in common with populist nationalist protectionism than internationalist and democratic socialism, which is based on the overcoming of imperialism and capitalism globally through a global cooperative commonwealth where all people are equals. To make the case for national chauvinism even worse, Adkins resorts to typical Kissinger type orientalist tropes about the essential nature of the Chinese people to argue for why China has different economic strategies than the U.S.:

“China seeks to become the Middle Kingdom that it has always been in its own perception; the center with all the rest of the world at its periphery. Unlike most American billionaires, China can think in terms of decades and centuries. Using its wisdom and will, China has a program to make China great again that is based on science, technology, and education.”

These national essentialist arguments, used to justify U.S. shoring up its imperial hegemony against China, goes against one of the main principles of republican democracy – equality of nations. In simpler terms, this is the principle that no one nation has an inherent right to dominate another. U.S. domination of the world market is not what the worker’s movement is meant to protect, but rather the opposite. The worker’s movement must battle against U.S. imperialist domination, the defeat of all U.S. military interventions, and the elimination of national inequalities and oppression. We must essentially be traitors to own government in any war, no matter how vile the enemy. The U.S. is not a “holy city on a hill” or “Empire of Liberty” destined to civilize the world by dominating other nations and enforcing our interests over them. We are not superior to any other people in the world. In Adkins’ article, “Socialism” is presented as a tool for imperialist nation-building in a period where the U.S. is in relative decline to keep our hegemony alive. Regardless of his personal views, he is giving strength to the imperialist ideology that the United States has a divine right to rule the world using the myth of spreading democracy. He is presenting socialism as part and parcel of this imperialist project, completely compatible and even beneficial towards it. Yet any socialist who is a committed internationalist and believes that democratic principles apply to all peoples of the world (not just Americans and Europeans) understands that our goal is the destruction of the U.S. Empire, not its strengthening. This is the line that separates truly committed socialists from the opportunists that concede to national chauvinism in the name of short-term political gain.

Adkins continues this line of argument even further:

“An opportunity for the left today is to show that democratic socialism is not only just, but also more functional at building a strong and resourceful country than neoliberal capitalism or mercantilism. A democratic socialist US would compete better with a mercantilist China because all our people would be able to learn and produce. Having a $15 minimum wage is a start to moving people out of poverty and having time for learning. Free college with support will be required for our population to be their best. Free continuing education is needed to keep pace with the promise and perils of automation and artificial intelligence, as technology evolves during all our work lives. Educators must be valued and paid more to have the best minds devoted to developing our children. Our education must be science-based and we need to eliminate fossil fuel corporations’ ability to sabotage politics because they are too lazy to evolve their companies. These goals need to be shared around the world.”

In this line of argument, socialism is not a way to liberate the exploited of the world, but to empower the U.S. economy so it can continue its position of global dominance. Socialism is presented as simply a more effective way to manage the national economy, and therefore strengthen American militarism to prevent Chinese domination. What is listed is a series of reforms that are presented as beneficial, not for supporting the U.S. working class, but rather the U.S. nation. As nationalism is a cross-class ideology that promotes allegiance of the working class to the ruling class of their own nation, loyalty to one’s nation is in direct contradiction to class unity that divides the working class along national lines. It is a direct roadblock to developing an internationalist working-class movement by promoting nationalist sentiment as a driving force for socialism. While obviously, one does not need to support the growing imperialism of Chinese policy to oppose U.S. Imperialism, promoting loyalty to one imperialist power over another is essentially scabbing on the rest of the global working class who suffer due to the U.S.’s informal domination of the world economy.

These arguments about the need to challenge Chinese hegemony through the strengthening of the U.S. economy to secure its own hegemonic role in the world imperialist hierarchy are exactly the same as those promoted by the U.S. Department of Defense. In its latest public policy document, the DoD practically admitted that US policy should shift from a war on terror to “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism” which is “now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” By publishing an article about the need to defend the U.S.’s global supremacy from China, Adkins is essentially aligning with the politics of the Pentagon, and arguing that the working class should fight in the name of empowering U.S. imperialism.

Adkins also reveals chauvinism in his own understanding of the Chinese economy, which he describes as “mercantilist” while the U.S. economy is “neo-liberal.” This comes off as imperial paternalism as if the Chinese are stuck in a lower “mercantilist” state of development when it’s clearly a powerful capitalist economy with elements of nationalized industry that co-exists with capital accumulation.  In his refusal to call the U.S. economy capitalism and instead calls it neoliberal, it’s suggesting that the problem is not capitalism, a global system that must be struggled against on a global front, but simply the lack of “big government” to limit the power of markets. The argument is essentially that neoliberalism is bad because it weakened the U.S. economy, so a stronger welfare state will boost the US economy to prevent the growing Chinese threat. Adkins clearly lacks an internationalist vision of socialism which is vital today and harkens back to post-New Deal America as an example of our nation’s potential economic and military might due to wealth redistribution policies:

“The height of American power was achieved during World War II.  That conflict was won by the power of US production, arms, and the Red Army.  On the home front, the US had cooperation between labor, capital, science, and government.  The US shared its production with allies using a program called Lend-Lease, which allowed sending of arms and equipment without immediate payment.  The U.S. aided the war recovery through the Marshall Plan, which speeded rebuilding.  The United Nations was created to establish world cooperation. That was then.”

Essentially, Adkins argues for a return to the glory days of the pre-neoliberal capitalist system, where America dominated the world order and certain Americans benefited from a booming economy. This was also the America that started imperialist wars in Korea and Vietnam and promoted coups around the world in order to put oppressive governments in power. It was the America where women were forced into a subordinate domestic role to do unpaid labor in a single owner household while and black Americans were left behind from many of these social programs while still having to wage a struggle for basic democratic rights. In the end, it seems like it’s not capitalism that’s the problem for Adkins, but rather extreme market fundamentalists running capitalism. It’s the same capitalism vs. crony capitalism argument we’re all tired of hearing.

Ultimately, these types of positions are not completely alien to the historical Democratic Socialists of America which essentially began as a lobbying group for the Democratic Party. They held soft positions on imperialism in the past, siding with the USA against the USSR in the Cold War for example. Yet DSA over the last two years has become flooded with youth who have no interest in shoring up the needs of U.S. imperial hegemony and have a genuine interest in socialism. This influx of new members was able to influence national policy enough to push through an endorsement of the pro-Palestinian BDS campaign, in return causing many labor-Zionist oldtimers to quit in outrage. Yet the struggle to separate DSA from its pro-imperial legacy obviously has not gone far enough. There are of course real reasons that exist behind why this pro-imperial ideology can gain traction in an organization that is still dominantly social-democratic in its origin.

Social-democracy (not in reference to the 2nd International pre-1914) is essentially a project to unite the working class with the national state to improve their condition in the world division of labor. Faith is put not in the self-organization of the working class, but in electing technocrats who will manage the capitalist state in a more rational way, while still existing and operating in the framework of competing imperialist states. It reinforces national divisions in the working class by telling workers that in exchange for national loyalty, they will get a better deal in the current system. It is socialism for the nation, particularly imperialist nations, not the proletarian class. Because there is a general inequality of nations not just in development, but in financial sovereignty, U.S. world domination rests on the U.S. dollar as the global standard of value. Hence one’s control over their own financial policies is determined by their place in the world hierarchy of imperialism. Nations with less financial sovereignty due to dependence on loans from the U.S.- and Euro- dominated IMF and World Bank will therefore be limited in how much they can pass social-democratic policies without repercussions. This is reflected in the case of Venezuela, where the attempts to create a Latin-American social-democracy was crashed by falling oil prices in the global economy. Social-democracy in the developing world is also bad for U.S. capitalists because they want access to a global labor market where the price of labor is kept as low as possible (by repressive states the U.S. helps prop up). One cannot consistently side with imperialist nation states and also side with the international working class, no matter how “democratic” such states are. To quote Lenin:

“Social-chauvinism and opportunism are the same in their political essence; class collaboration, repudiation of the proletarian dictatorship, rejection of revolutionary action, obeisance to bourgeois legality, non-confidence in the proletariat, and confidence in the bourgeoisie. The political ideas are identical, and so is the political content of their tactics. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of Millerandism, Bernsteinism, and British liberal-labour policies, their sum, their total, their highest achievement.” 

An ideology that is dedicated to raising the standards of one nation while ignoring the working class in other nations is essentially social-chauvinist. It negates a key, uncompromisable socialist principle of internationalism. Adkins’ article perfectly articulates how social-democracy is tied to imperialist politics. Social-democracy is not an answer for the entire world, but only a way for states in the upper tier of the global division of powers to benefit their own national working class while the rest of the world suffers under the thumb of imperialist imposed economic policies. If DSA wants to represent a truly emancipatory politics for the proletariat of the world, it must move away from the ideology of social-democracy that accommodates for nationalism and imperialism which would necessitate a complete break from the Democratic Party. I urge all members of DSA to push for their locals to condemn the politics of Adkin and take a firm anti-imperialist stance opposed to all U.S. military domination. A socialism only for Americans is no socialism I want to be a part of.


The Myth of Primitive Communism: Part I


Ausangate, a sacred mountain located in the Andes.

The vision of “Primitive Communism” articulates a mythical past of free, communal living lost to the passage of time. This characterization, though, does not align with reality, and Marxists should look to develop a new understanding of such societies which takes into account the reality of their material conditions.

In non-capitalist, “stateless” modes of production, production is frequently characterized by relations to symbolic, cosmological orders. Rather than hierarchical management, reciprocity drives the social division of labor. Production and daily life are not alienated from one another, but rather form a complete whole in the process of reproducing society. Such social arrangements are frequently called “primitive communism”, due to their being stateless and egalitarian. This characterization is limited, and ignores the underlying complexity within these cultures.

In a recent piece in the Hau Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Marshall Sahlins refers to the “original political society” in a fascinating inversion of Hobbes’ argument regarding humanity in the state of nature:

“Even the so-called ‘egalitarian’ or ‘acephalous’ societies, including hunters such as the inuit or Australian Aboriginals, are in structure and practice cosmic polities, ordered and governed by divinities, the dead, species-masters, and other such metapersons endowed with life-and-death powers over the human populations. There are kingly beings in heaven where there are no chiefs on earth. Hobbes notwithstanding, the state of nature is already something of a political state. It follows that, taken in its social totality and cultural reality, something like the state is the general condition of humankind. It is usually called ‘religion’.”

The core of this claims is that, through the creation of beings outside of ourselves (and it does not matter whether or not these being exist – what matters is that people act as though they do, that is to say, they are reified), human societies follow certain laws not set out by any particular individual or social class, but by “kingly beings in heaven”. These beings function in a way that is analogous to the state. Considering that, historically speaking, complex, state level societies are the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself, it would seem the “earthly” politics is much more frequently the co-option of these metahuman forms. It is the earthly state which becomes an analogy for the heavenly state.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx refers to the religious forms which alienate humanity from their social existence:

“Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality”.

The symbolic orders associated with the “cosmic polities” referenced by Sahlins are one such instance of Marx’s “fantastic reality”. That is, material conditions projected into the realm of the supernatural which then characterize people’s understanding of their productive relations. In much the same way that property arrangements in Feudal and Capitalist states are descended from alien forms, e.g: civil society and kings, so too are social arrangements in so-called stateless societies passed down from the alienated forms of ancestors, gods, and spirits. Society is treated as separate from the people who constitute it.

From what conditions do these fantastic realities emerge? Why do people conjure spirits to organize their social lives, rather than organizing their own social lives along their own terms? How does the “heavenly” state relate to the “earthly” state? To investigate these questions, I will use traditional Andean beliefs as a case study.

Huacas and Aini

Indigenous Andean cosmology assigns reciprocal ties between humans, spirits, labor and land. This cosmological principle is known as aini, and belief in it long precedes the Inca Empire and continues to this day. Spirits (called huacas) are frequently associated with particular physical locations, such as a field or a mountain, and receiving the bounty of that landscape is not achieved through domination or control but rather by asking. Rituals are performed which ask the huacas to provide for the people, and in turn the huacas provide (or not- in which case the rituals must have been performed improperly). These rituals may be tied to objective factors of production, imbued with magical qualities, such as the tilling of fields and scattering of seeds, but also to symbolic factors, such as the spreading of blood over a landscape which is associated with giving life to the land.

In modern conditions, one must consider that the peasant and capitalist economies in the Andes are intertwined. Proletarianization continues to be an ongoing process, and there is internal conflict between those who choose to relocate to the cities and those who remain in their communities. Traditional beliefs are transformed by the relationship to capitalist production, and some of the implications of this will be explored later. Nonetheless, social relations internal to peasant communities continue to be characterized by aini.

The need to cope with mystery is one basis for the human drive to conjure spirits. When a people’s landscape of knowledge is limited in some way, for instance, being unaware of the underlying mechanisms of plant genetics, mythology and storytelling fill in the gaps. Huacas associated with fields, for instance, explain why crops grow. In doing so, the concrete relation between human and plant is alienated as a spiritual relation. The product of labor is viewed as the product of divinity. One specific form of these myths is the etiological myth, which explains the origins of something. For instance, etiological myths regarding the origin of coca, a sacred plant in Andean culture, suggest that it was a gift from Inti the sun god.

These myths themselves take on an alienated character, in that they are the alienation of nature from humanity. Humans are themselves an element of natural systems, as beneath all labor is the metabolism of nature by humanity. In Sahlins’ “acephalous” societies, it is cycles of planting and harvesting, weather conditions, and terrain which dominate people’s productive relations rather than particular social classes (and even as social stratification increases, such factors continue to play a central role). Sahlins claims that “in a way, the reign of the metaperson powers-that-be was classically hegemonic”. These “metaperson powers-that-be”, being the alien reflection of nature itself, reflect then a hegemony of nature over humanity.

A creative element to such mythology, though, should not be understated. Mythology does not simply emerge from material conditions – it is itself a human creation in which humans have agency. Mythology can also function as a form of entertainment, self expression, and a means to record the past.  I recall one story told by a Quechua woman to myself and classmates when I studied abroad in Perú. While I cannot share the same vivid detail the woman shared with me, I will attempt to do the story justice. She told about how one of her ancestors had taken a journey across the highlands into the jungles on the eastern edge of Perú to gather fruit. On her journey, she encountered a group of terrifying dogs which tried to attack her and her companions. She realized, though, that these dogs were the rabid spirits of the Spanish conquistadors. She tamed the dogs, freeing the spirits of the conquest from their hatred. In doing so, she also liberated the land from the spirits of the conquest. Although the story was brief, I was blown away by the complexity held within it. The story aided in  bridging the gap between our two worlds, as I caught a glimpse into her mind and her own understanding of the Spanish conquest.

Aini neither explains the origins of something nor does it fill in a gap in knowledge. Aini is a cosmological principle, the principle of reciprocity. Reciprocity exists in cultures across the globe, and its widespread existence must have some basis. The cross-cultural similarity between disparate geographical regions suggests it is not the result of diffusion, and as materialists we should eschew any mystical notions of “ancestral memory” or “collective unconscious”.

Referring to Marcel Mauss’ analysis of Maori exchange, Michael Taussig summarizes:

“That the underlying basis of [Maori society] is the reciprocity that is associated with the belief that an article that is produced and exchanged contains the life-force (hau) of the person and objects in nature from whence the article is derived.”

The objects of labor are in this case embedded in a multitude of relations, between gift giver and receiver, between life-force and labor. The exchange itself reifies the belief in hau but underlying hau is a material basis, the division of labor. This division of labor is necessary for the reproduction of society and reciprocity is the means by which it can be realized. In stratified societies, social labor is mobilized by dominant social classes. In an egalitarian society, reciprocity allows any individual to mobilize social labor through reciprocal exchanges. In much the same way that a feudal king’s divine right justifies his ability to enact this mobilization, so too does the cosmological principle justify an individual’s ability to enact it. Once more, though, the cosmological principle is alienated from the real basis – solidarity between humans for their mutual survival.

Particular environmental and social conditions in the Andes also play a central role in the symbolic order associated with aini. Modern Perú is made up of radical diversity of ecological niches, frequently along the slopes of a mountain. The foundation of traditional social organization here is the ayllu, which brings several villages along different ecological niches together through kinship ties. Reciprocal ties exist not only between individuals, but between the constituent communities of these ayllu. In this context, principles of reciprocity enable a complex division of labor across geographical regions without requiring hierarchical structures of administration. For instance, one village in a niche may have proper conditions to produce corn, another potatoes, and another quinoa. Independently, each of these niches are not able to produce all the resources necessary to reproduce themselves, but when brought together through ties of reciprocity they can.  


Reciprocity forms for acephalous societies a means for individuals to call upon social labor. This labor is based on the concrete community between humans, but reify alienated, cosmological forms which exist outside humanity and subordinate them to “fantastic reality”. The aim of communism is not only to abolish class domination and the fetishism of commodities present in capitalism, but all forms of fetishism and domination. Just like the myth of the noble savage, so too should we do away with the myth of primitive communism which calls upon humanity to look towards a fictitious past to realize our future. Not only is such an ideal no longer possible, it is no longer preferable. This is not to say that societies which conjure an order of spirits around them are lesser or even incorrect to do so – it is a perfectly rational way to conceive of the world. Exorcising these spirits requires abolishing the material conditions which give rise to them. To do so is to transcend material conditions themselves. Any return to nature simply means a return to human domination by nature.

This exploration has primarily been concerned with the spiritual forms of stateless societies and their relation to material conditions. In state formation, empire building, and the development of capitalism, these forms undergo their own transformation. Stories become coopted, recuperated, destroyed, and renewed, as they cope with social stratification and the clash of modes of production. In part two, I will highlight the dynamics behind these processes through the formation of the Inca Empire, its conquest of the Andes, and finally its conquest by the Spanish.


Karl Marx, A Contribution to Hegel’s Critique of the Philosophy of Right

Gordon McEwan, The Incas: A New Perspective

Marshall Sahlins, the Original Political Society

Michael Taussig, the Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America