Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Against the tide: André Frappier’s journey as a class-struggle militant


I first met André Frappier in the late 1970s, when we were members of the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue ouvrière révolutionnaire, a pan-Canadian Marxist cadre organization. When the league decided to hoist its banner in the 1980 federal election campaign, André — already well-known as a union militant — was chosen as our candidate in a downtown Montréal riding. (No, he was not elected!)

Along with many others, André and I parted company with the RWL/LOR soon afterward. For André, this was by no means the end of his political activism, quite the contrary, as this recent interview by Pierre Beaudet shows. It is published in the current issue of Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, no. 25, winter 2021, under the title “À contre-courant : André Frappier, toujours présent,” also published as a separate text on the NCS webpage.

My translation, along with a few supplementary notes and this introduction.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

André Frappier became an activist in the 1970s, in the student movements. He was then hired at Canada Post, where for several decades he became one of the pillars of the combative Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Later, André became an active member of Québec solidaire (QS) which he sees as a potential tool for our emancipation.

From the CEGEP, where you had your first activist experience, you went on to the Post Office...

I spent a good part of my time as a CEGEP student[1] in activism, especially in solidarity with Chile, then at the heart of the political debates. It was fascinating to watch an attempt to transition to socialism without revolution, which contradicted what we were learning from Marxism. Finally, the coup d’état in 1973 put an end to the experiment, reminding us that the capitalist class does not allow itself to be controlled so easily [1]. On May 1, 1974, several of us in the Québec-Chile student solidarity committee occupied the Chilean consulate. We were all arrested, and I spent a night in a cell. My political vision was to deepen after that, as internationalism is decisive in the fight for an egalitarian society.

I had not completed my college diploma when I was called to the Post Office for an interview in August 1975. Among the 1000 hired (out of 10,000 applicants), I was ranked 740th! As soon as I got to work, I took part in my first major strike, which lasted six weeks.

In the union, there was a great leader...

For two decades, the Syndicat des postiers du Canada (SPC) [2] in Montreal was Marcel Perreault. He had been president of the largest section in Quebec since 1968 (over 4,000 members) and the second largest in Canada after Toronto. He was a fiery leader who knew how to command respect among his members as well as in other unions. He was vice-president of the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) and president of the Montreal Labour Council (CTM) for several years. In 1977, I attended my first “national” convention in Halifax, when Joe Davidson was president [3]. It was at this congress that an extraordinary trade unionist, Jean-Claude Parrot, became national president [4]. In 1978, a strike that was initially legal was declared illegal with Bill C-8. Parrot found himself on the front lines and was sentenced to three months in prison, after being cravenly abandoned by the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Dennis McDermott.[2]

You had to follow the “line”...

In congresses, Perreault required the Quebec delegation to vote with one voice. However, at the 1980 convention, I dared to vote with two other comrades in favour of a resolution aimed at adjusting the union dues of part-time employees according to the hours worked. Perreault was opposed to it, but the proposal had the support of the rest of Canada. During the adjournment, National Director Clément Morel ordered our expulsion from the Quebec caucus. At that time, I had just been fired by management and was awaiting arbitration of my grievance. I was somewhat distraught. My friend Paul Heffernan from the Toronto local advised me to report this event to the convention. The next day, I went to the microphone and asked the national director of Quebec to explain why he had expelled three members of his delegation. I got a standing ovation from delegations from the rest of Canada who took a dim view of the rigid discipline to which we were subjected in the union.

In the end, I was able to gain some respect. A few years later, to my surprise, Clément Morel confided in me that he did not fully share Perreault’s feelings! In the meantime, my friend Paul Heffernan had become president of his local. In my opinion, one of the best Toronto has seen.

Perreault was opposed to everything that was progressive...

Despicably, he had fought the establishment of a women’s committee on which several women had worked for months [5]. Perreault had also opposed the proposals from the Western region concerning sexual harassment at the 1983 convention as well as the plans for day care and child care costs. The majority of delegates from Quebec, overwhelmingly made up of men, registered their dissent when these policies were adopted at the 1986 convention. That same year, when the votes were counted for the local union elections, the children of parents who supported my candidacy were expelled by the union marshals, made up exclusively of Perreault supporters.

He was even against the unification of unions at the Post Office...

He fiercely opposed the merger with the Union of Postal and Communications Employees (UPCE), which took place anyway, and helped sabotage the merger with the Letter Carriers Union of Canada (LCUC). It was not until the vote ordered by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) in February 1989, following the plan to overhaul the certification units by Canada Post, that this unification could take place. The 23,000-member CUPW won over the 21,000-member LCUC with a majority of just 901 votes.

The new union, which was not based on mutual agreement, gave rise to an open war in which Perreault took delight in provoking the former members of the LCUC. He rebuked them for their interventions and set up a union marshalling squad made up of about fifteen men dressed in black who stood at the front of the room. At one meeting he even called in the police. It took a long time to pick up the pieces, even after his election defeat in 1991. In fact, it required a new generation to take over on both the former CUPW and LCUC sides.

During all these battles, did you have a hard time?

At each union meeting, he was waiting for me around the corner. Perreault’s discourse was based on a narrow nationalism which hardened the Quebec members against the positions of the members in the rest of Canada. He used my support for Parrot and my links with several union activists in the rest of Canada to present me as a spy for the Canadians and a traitor in Quebec!

In March 1987, I attended an important meeting on a draft collective agreement. In the room, the seats around me were empty, no one dared be seen beside me. Perreault spoke of the “four-page rag”, referring to a tract published in my recent union election campaign. He tried to entertain the room with a dubious play on words: “Je ne vous demande quand même pas que vous le Frappier” [“I’m not even asking you to hit him!” Frappier is close to frapper, to hit.]

It got pretty wild?

During all these years, I helped to put together teams in local elections with a democratization program and I ran against him for the presidency. I wanted us to deepen our ties with the FTQ, to participate in political battles. We had to put forward the demands of women who had been sidelined for so long. To my surprise, in my first election in 1983, despite all the pressure and the smear campaign against me, I got almost a third of the votes. It encouraged me a lot. I naively believed that since I had made a show of strength Perreault would calm down a bit and that we could finally hope for a more serene climate in the union. The opposite happened, he took it as a danger to his survival. After this election, a few comrades and I were put on a blacklist, distributed by members of the executive during the assemblies to elect delegates to union bodies and to congresses. It was ten years before we could participate again.

Your resistance ended up getting some results...

Perreault continued to protect his power by taking advantage of a conservative ideology. He was a brake on trade-union unity, so necessary in this context of a government offensive. In 1981, more than 100,000 workers, including several thousand SPC members, protested in front of parliament against the economic policies of the federal government. The following year, when the Parti québécois (PQ) government wanted to cut Quebec civil service salaries by 20%, Jean-Claude Parrot offered financial assistance of five dollars per union member both in Canada and Quebec to organize the resistance. But Perreault was opposed, on the pretext that we were not allowed to play with the union dues. However, it was clear that the governments were organizing an offensive against the public services and that union unity was more urgent than ever.

Things came to a head in 1987...

During negotiations, the national leadership of the union understood that the government was going to pass a special law. The National Executive Council wanted to keep up the pressure while preventing the government from legislating. Rotating strikes were the appropriate way to achieve this. Perreault opposed this, adopting the false image of a radical trade unionist. He hoped anti-union legislation would allow him to blame the government and the national leadership while relieving himself of all responsibility. When the time came to vote he made a fiery speech against rotating strikes. No debate was allowed, and Perreault was going to proceed to a strike vote by show of hands, contrary to the rules of procedure. I walked to the front of the room and demanded microphones. The union marshals expelled me manu militari. I had, however, opened a crack; several members who ordinarily would not have dared to speak congratulated me. The media were present and reported the event. During this period, I thought about resigning my duties as a union delegate and quitting my activism, but I was too proud to do so!

But in the end, the tide turned...

It was at this point that Perreault lost his bid for re-election to Richard Forget. The arrival of the LCUC members in 1989 was the factor that hastened his downfall. His strategies were aimed not at strengthening the trade union movement, but dodging to make others bear the burden of possible compromises. The iron fist imposed on militants was now arousing growing discontent. His defeat made it possible to move on. It was high time!

Did Perreault’s departure open the door?

Faced with the growing rebellion against Perreault, the vice-president of the Montreal local, Richard Forget, won the union elections of 1991 by promising some democratization. I had worked hard and was disappointed that he did not call on me. He had actually backed the cheap blows against me, but we were in new times, hope was finally allowed, so I supported him without hesitation. In the first general meetings, Perreault and his supporters persisted in their attacks on the new executive and the president. I came to his defence, giving Perreault a good lesson in democracy. He was now unable to come to terms with the decision of the members, which he regarded as the basis of the union when he was in power. I was warmly applauded, it was a first for me, I almost felt like crying.

In the end, you manage to break down the wall...

In the subsequent election of the Montreal section in 1993, I was elected to the Forget team, in charge of union education. Gradually, our union began to function normally, apart from the opaque games of the former president. Yet I thought we were marking time, especially since Canada Post, managed by the Liberal party, wanted to “restructure” the postal service, which meant cutting jobs, reducing wages and increasing productivity. The threat of privatization loomed on the horizon.

Finally, you become president of the Montreal local of CUPW...

Richard Forget wasn’t a bad guy, but he had retained his old reflexes. Information circulated in dribbles to the executive except among those close to him. This had repercussions among the members and discontent grew in the general assemblies, especially on the side of the letter carriers who were still smarting and remained suspicious. Finally, the majority of the executive committee wanted to put together a new team. I was elected president in 1996 with the majority of our team. In anticipation of the 1997 negotiations, we felt that our 6,000 members really had to regain control of their union. Trade union unity and participatory democracy were at the heart of our platform. The Montreal section thus threw itself into mobilization. In the spring of 1998, more than 1,000 members from Montreal demonstrated at the Parliament in Ottawa. In the fall, 300 militants occupied the Canada Post headquarters in downtown Montréal. The following week, we occupied Place des Arts on the evening when the Post Office had invited its executives and contractors to a concert at its expense.

A few years later, you change course...

The six years in the presidency had worn me out. There had been some real political battles, but also factional battles, the two sometimes intertwined. I therefore decided to leave the presidency and to run for the post of national director in 2002. This post would offer a more political role, in particular through developing union strategies during negotiations. I was happy to take charge of organizing campaigns including that of the rural route mail couriers, which was a big step forward. This made it possible to get better terms for people who had been classed as independent contractors without the right to unionize. To get around this legal obstacle, we negotiated an agreement with Minister André Ouellet in the 2004 collective agreement. It was not a smooth process for our troops. Without saying so directly, some of our members resented our spending a lot of money from the available funds at our disposal on achieving the first collective agreement of the Organization of Rural Route Mail Couriers (ORRMC). I argued that this cheap labour in rural areas allowed Canada Post management to exert downward pressure on working conditions, which affected everyone. In the end, we managed to organize 6,000 new members, bolstering the union with new militant strength. This is how Nancy Beauchamp, who was one of these precariously employed people, was the first woman to be elected to the position of national director for the Montréal region. She is now an executive member of the FTQ.

Throughout, you got involved with activists from the “Rest of Canada”...

I had developed links for a long time with militants outside Quebec. My tenure as National Director now allowed me to work more closely with them. National Executive Council (NEC) meetings lasted a week and took place once every two months in Ottawa, but during negotiations it was often monthly. I really enjoyed this experience and learned a lot from it. Despite our differences, I learned to better understand the reality of activism outside Quebec. I also appreciated the fact that the Quebec reality was respected. I had the good fortune to work under the presidency of Deborah Bourque, a visionary woman very concerned about democracy. Her defeat at the hands of Denis Lemelin in 2008 was certainly the event that most disappointed and saddened me in this union.

At the CLC convention in Vancouver in 1999, I took the floor and made my speech entirely in French, which nobody had dared to do. There was an interpretation service, but the majority of delegates from the rest of Canada did not use it, with the exception of the CUPW delegation! At the end of my speech, I asked those who understood what I had said to raise their hands. That was revealing, and everyone got the point. But it will take a long time to change entrenched attitudes.

Anti-Quebec prejudices remained strong...

The CLC reflected the incomprehension that the Canadian labour movement had in relation to Quebec. It must be said that the major Canadian media practice Quebec bashing regularly and to their heart’s content, as in the Maclean’s magazine article that charged Quebec with being the most corrupt province in Canada. With the exception of CUPW, very few pan-Canadian unions, including the CLC itself, have taken a position that unambiguously expresses Quebec’s right to self-determination.

A few years later, in 2002, on the occasion of Jean-Claude Parrot’s departure from the CLC, I had the honour to present on the rostrum a tribute to his work on behalf of the Quebec delegation; this time everyone used the interpretation devices…

In 2004, you got involved in an election with the New Democratic Party (NDP)...

I thought there was some momentum with a leader who had also been present in Quebec. Jack Layton wanted to change things and to include Quebec while respecting its autonomy. He even told me that he didn’t mind having a pro-sovereignty candidate. So I took the plunge in Papineau riding, which had long been held by the Liberal party. My friend Pierre Laliberté did the same thing and ran in Gatineau. I had the support of my local, and also of Michel Taylor, president of the Montréal Regional FTQ Council, as well as of CUPW national president Deborah Bourque. At the nomination meeting several other trade union members were present, including my friends from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

Navigating in a federalist party was not easy...

The NDP communications officer was always by my side, making sure that I avoided answering directly to the “question” of my pro-independence beliefs. This did not, however, prevent Stéphane Dion, in a letter published in The Globe and Mail, from criticizing Jack Layton for having accepted the candidacy of an evil “séparatisse” in Papineau. After the election (I received 8% of the vote), the NDP concluded that its pro-Quebec discourse had not produced the hoped-for results and that instead this position had caused it to suffer losses in Western Canada. With Pierre Laliberté, we agreed that this desired alliance with the NDP did not have much of a future.

In 2005, your re-election as National Director of CUPW did not go very well...

When I ran for the position of National Director, I knew I was putting myself in a risky position. At the local level, thousands of members vote by mail for those running for the executive, but a national director is to be elected at convention by the 70 delegates from Montreal. My opponents knew it and worked more effectively than I. It must be said that I had often put my head on the chopping block, defending what I thought was important for the union, such as the collective agreement which made it possible to integrate the rural route mail couriers. I lost narrowly, by three votes.

For you, CUPW has been and remains a progressive union...

CUPW is one of the few unions that has played an important role on the Canadian political scene. It has led battles and strike actions from one end to another of Canada “and Quebec” which have been at the centre of media news. This union was a forerunner in obtaining the right to strike at the federal level, in the fight for a reduction in working time without loss of pay, and in obtaining parental leave. The mobilizations and political credit that it was able to build on a pan-Canadian scale have made it an imposing union force, but also a political force in opposing the Canadian government and the private companies that have always sought to gain entry to this sector for their profit. The fact that the Canadian postal sector has not yet been totally privatized, as it has been in many countries, is an achievement on the part of the union. No wonder it has been in the cross-hairs of governments.

Did you come back to basics then?

At the time, my defeat really disheartened me. But I went back to being a letter carrier, a job that I really liked. At the same time, I worked with the Montreal section of CUPW, which put me in charge of a special project at the Youville branch where I worked. The idea was to test an improvement in the flyer delivery process for the next collective agreement.

I also got involved again with the Regional Council of the Montréal FTQ and I was elected for a second time to the executive. With Michel Ducharme, we wanted to bring unions closer to popular groups mobilized in the Coalition Main rouge [Red hand coalition], formed in the fall of 2009 following the announcement by the then Liberal government that it would make greater use of user fees on public services and implement budgetary austerity [6].

You came up against the so-called concertation approach that prevailed at the FTQ...

The then president of the FTQ, Michel Arsenault, was not sympathetic to the Coalition Main Rouge. Like many union leaders, he feared this kind of coalition where unions are on an equal footing with many smaller groups. But ultimately, I think these positions were motivated more by the FTQ’s preference for tripartite consultation and partnership. In fact, it is only some local unions and regional labour bodies like the Montréal Central Council of the CSN and the Montréal Regional Council of the FTQ that have joined.

The concertation orientation has limited struggles and even resulted in defeats. In 2012, during the historic social mobilization in response to the student upsurge, the unions simply gave it lip service and prevented this movement from moving to a higher level. During the negotiations with the government, the leaderships of the centrals at no time threatened the government with a mobilization of their forces in aid of the student movement. In fact, these leaderships exerted more pressure on the student spokespersons than they did on the government [7]. In the years that followed, the various governments have continued their policies of social disengagement in education and health, the tragic consequences of which can be seen today.

Life then took you elsewhere...

I retired in the late summer of 2010, but soon after was hired by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to work on union organizing with a bunch of young and dynamic activists who were at ASSÉ (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), including a certain Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. In the meantime, my involvement with Québec solidaire grew. I was part of the QS National Coordinating Committee for six years from 2012 to 2018. We had many debates, particularly with regard to electoral alliances with the Parti québécois, which raised several questions concerning our democratic functioning. The members had spoken out against these alliances twice, at the congresses preceding the elections of 2012 and 2014. But the day after the elections, it was as if we were faced with a blank page. This long road ended at the 2017 congress where the idea of ​​an alliance with the PQ was defeated after a wide-ranging debate that lasted several months. Fortunately, everyone agrees now. The results of 2018 [when QS elected 10 members to the National Assembly] would not have been the same if we had fallen into the trap of Jean-François Lisée, head of the PQ.[3] Since then, we have not made much progress in terms of our way of implementing this independence project and our strategy with regard to the Canadian state.

This question has led you to new initiatives...

The clarification of QS’s positions on these issues has been at the heart of my engagement within this party. Along with others, including mainly my comrade and friend Andrea Levy, we have established a pan-Canadian progressive network that met virtually almost monthly for several years. The emergence of Québec solidaire as an independentist left party raised many questions among the Canadian left, to which answers and perspectives had to be provided. The Canadian people have no interest in defending their own establishment against the people of Quebec fighting for their emancipation. Conversely, the support of the Canadian working class is essential to the survival of this project. For lack of support, we saw the failures of the Greek and Catalan progressive parties in 2015 and 2017.

Did this liaison work continue later?

I took part in several conferences in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary and I reported to the leadership bodies of Québec solidaire. I also worked closely with Naomi Klein’s team for the creation of the Leap Manifesto, along with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Roger Rashi, by trying among other things to adapt the text of the declaration to the reality of Quebec. For several years now, I have been writing a column in the journal Canadian Dimension which focuses mainly on politics in Quebec. At the same time, as QS’s (interim) co-spokesperson, I became more familiar with the struggles of the Indigenous nations. In the winter of 2013, I was in Ottawa during the Indigenous protests in support of the hunger strike of Theresa Spence, Chief of the Attawapiskat Nation, at the start of the Idle No More mobilizations. In the spring of that year, I met with the Algonquin population of Lac-Barrière accompanied by Geneviève Beaudet and André Richer, also of QS.[8]. In a delegation of 14 people, we heard the message of the Indigenous people and their very different vision of the territory. Michel Thusky, an elder in the community, explained to us that “the land does not belong to anyone, everyone can occupy it by respecting it and ensuring the sustainability of its resources. White governments see this same territory not as a precious ecosystem to be respected, but as an asset to be squandered.”

True to your convictions since the beginning of your activist life, international solidarity is always present...

In October 2014, I participated in Toronto, on behalf of QS, in an international meeting on public transport organized by Die Linke, the German left party. This gave me the opportunity to lay the groundwork that led to the invitation of Andreas Gunther, a representative of this party, to our congress in May 2015. In the meantime, Benoit Renaud worked to invite Cat Boyd of the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland. This was the beginning of our openness to international guests at congresses. In October 2017, I represented QS within a delegation of the international left in Barcelona at the initiative of the independentist left party CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy). In return, we invited to the QS congress in December 2017 two elected CUP members, Anna Gabriel and Eulalia Reguant.

In November 2018, thanks to you, my friend Pierre Beaudet, I had the opportunity to participate in the thematic Social forum on the mining and extractivist economy in Johannesburg, where I represented Québec solidaire. Then, in the summer of 2019, I attended the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention in Atlanta on behalf of QS, because although I have not been a member of the National Coordinating Committee since the National Council in December 2018, I am part of the party’s commission on global justice issues. As a socialist, internationalism is not an “extra” activity or a luxury, but a necessity. It is not always easy, but we must continue.

We have no choice, we have to look to the future...

COVID-19 has intensified the challenges of securing basic living needs on a level not seen since the recession of 1929. The crisis is global, global warming has caused devastating fires in Australia and California while the last plateau of unspoiled Canadian Arctic ice has just collapsed. The future of society depends on us. Neoliberal political parties cannot represent a way out, they are at the origin of the crisis.

The challenges are high. The unions have had some victories, but they have not been able to address the source of the problems, constantly restarting the cycle of gains and setbacks, which eventually deepen. The broad left has succeeded in building a political party since 2006 with Québec solidaire, but the junction with social movements and unions has not really materialized.

If there are common traits in the various struggles of my militant life, I would say that democracy would be at the top of the list. This fight is taking on decisive importance today. We have seen how easy it can be for a government like that of François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) to lead by decree if we lack vigilance.

Horizontal democracy must become a fundamental value within Québec solidaire because it is, even more in this time of confinement, the essential basis for the mobilization and life of the party.

The lessons of the coup d’état in Chile have also guided my activist journey throughout my life. If neoliberal governments can be ousted, the capitalist institutions that support them will still be present. Another eloquent illustration was the economic crushing of the Syriza government by the troika [9] in Greece in 2015.

We cannot conceive of our struggles without the development of an internationalist strategy. The future of the planet in environmental, social and health terms depends on it. The Quebec for which we are campaigning and whose population will regain control of its destiny, will constitute a step forward and generate a new social dynamic which, we hope, will transcend our borders. But the Canadian establishment will not stand idly by. Building solidarity with the working class in the rest of Canada, in alliance with the Indigenous nations, remains an unavoidable challenge. This has been and still continues to be at the centre of my militant journey.


[1] Popular Unity was an alliance that brought together a broad spectrum ranging from Communists to the Christian left and had the support of the unions. Elected in 1970, it proposed a program to fight inflation, revive the agrarian economy, nationalize the banks and the copper industry in which the United States and Canada had interests. Pinochet’s coup d’état was made possible by operations undertaken by the CIA in 1970. See: “Un dictateur mis en place par les États-Unis,” Le Devoir, December 11, 2006.

[2] The Syndicat des postiers du Canada changed its name after merging with the Letter Carriers Union of Canada (LCUC) to become the Syndicat des travailleurs et travailleuses des postes (STTP). The name in English has remained unchanged: Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

[3] See his autobiography: Joe Davidson and John Deverell, Joe Davidson (Toronto, James Lorimer & Company Publishers, 1978).

[4] See his autobiography, Jean-Claude Parrot, Ma vie de syndicaliste (Montréal, Boréal 2005). [In English, My Union, My Life (Fernwood, 2005).] Note, the terms national president or national leadership are used by the union.

[5] This is recounted in Julie White’s book, Mail and Female. Women and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing, 1990).

[6] See the Declaration of the Red Hand Coalition: <>.

[7] See on this subject the collective work, Le printemps des carrés rouges, by André Frappier, Richard Poulin and Bernard Rioux (Saint-Joseph-du-lac, M éditeur, 2012).

[8] At the time, QS did not have any activist representing the indigenous nations. [At the QS congress in November 2019, the delegates voted unanimously to establish a National Indigenous Commission (CAN in its French acronym) to give voice to the party’s First Nations and Inuit members.]

[9] The troika appoints the experts representing the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

[1] The CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, or general and vocational college) is a public post-secondary, pre-university college peculiar to the Quebec education system.

[2] See Jean-Claude Parrot, My Union, My Life (see text note 4), chapters six and seven.

[3] See “Québec solidaire: No to an electoral pact with the PQ, Yes to a united front against austerity, for energy transition and for independence,”

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Twenty-first century global capitalism reconfigures the imperialist disorder

The following is the third of a series of articles on contemporary imperialism by Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz. I translated the first article (The United States’ failed imperial recovery) and cited a section of the second in my review of the work of Leo Panitch (Remembering Leo Panitch). In this third instalment, Katz draws attention to what he considers an increasing asymmetry between the enduring geometry of post-WWII imperialism and the changing features of 21st century global capitalism.[1] Katz published his text under the title “La indefinición imperial contemporánea.”

- Richard Fidler

* * *

Today’s imperialism still lacks clear definition

By Claudio Katz


Imperialism is a mechanism of domination with changing historical modalities. The territorial, commercial and intermediate variants preceded the capitalist imperative of profit. This difference is diluted in the model of hegemonic successions.

Classical imperialism was characterized more by war than by economic transformations. The later model led by the United States has sought to stifle revolutions and prevent socialism. The current North American impotence contrasts with the flexibility of its British predecessor.

Mutations in contemporary capitalism have no equivalent imperial correlates. Neoliberalism disrupted the functioning of the system, but imperialism continues without a compass. The defining features will be determined in the clash with the Asian rival and popular resistance.

* * *

Imperialism is the principal instrument of capitalist domination. This system requires military deployments, diplomatic pressure, economic blackmail and cultural subjugation. A social regime based on exploitation needs coercion, deterrence and deception mechanisms to protect the profits of the powerful. The same tools are used to resolve conflicts between rival powers.

Imperialism operates in different latitudes through multiple arrangements. But its dynamic has adopted forms in each era that are quite distinct. An historical review clarifies this mutation and the current meaning of the concept.

A variety of models

Empires preceded capitalism. But in feudal, tributary and slave regimes, the mechanisms of subjection were based on territorial expansion or control of trade. This distinction is based on the conceptualization proposed by Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood.

She points out that Rome forged an empire of property founded on military coercion, revenue from slavery and the conquest of territories. It managed systems of government that associated the aristocracies of each place with processes of colonization and administration of a gigantic space. This empire combined the extension of private property with military power and coalesced the Romanized local elites through an ideology rooted in religion.

Spain also commanded a vast territorial empire organized around the granting of lands in exchange for military service. The conquistadores assumed full control of populations that were devastated by super-exploitation. The Crown’s emissaries justified this undertaking with the messages of Christianity (Wood, 2003 24-41)

Commercial empires took on another profile. The Arab-Muslim variant linked dispersed communities in common activity governed by laws, moral codes and cultures articulated by the religious leaders of the urban elites.

In the Italian cities, the commercial empire was controlled by the financial aristocracies that monopolized trade in the fragmented feudal universe. The use of mercenaries to carry out military actions illustrated that priority of mercantile management. Holland developed another modality of this commercial type, dominating maritime routes through large companies. It sought not tribute, lands or minerals but full control of those connections (Wood, 2003: 42-70).

From this standpoint, no commercial empire achieved capitalist status. They were sustained in gains arising out of trade and the consequent sequence of buying low and selling high. They did not include the basic principle of a process of accumulation, sustained in the competition to reduce costs through increasing productivity. They simply embodied distinct patterns of pre-capitalist empires.

This approach considers that it was Great Britain that inaugurated the passage to the current forms of imperialism through prolonged transition and different paths. The expansion of the English empire in North America synthesized that combination of forms that both obstructed and promoted capitalism: obstruction, through the reintroduction of permanent and hereditary slavery on cotton plantations, in order to facilitate English industrialization. Promotion, by the introduction of capitalist agriculture through the transfer of settlers who completed the appropriation of the New World (Wood, 2003: 71-86).

This empire of settlers — rehearsed in the laboratory of Ireland — incorporated capitalist relations in American agriculture through the occupation of lands and the extermination of the indigenous population. In the thirteen colonies of New England there emerged the principle of competition for profits arising from exploitation, which later spread to industrial accumulation in the cities. This new pillar of profit (no longer commercial) was introduced through a form of pro-capitalist colonialism.

Wood also recalls that the English model in other regions (such as India) adopted the old forms of tribute. It started as a commercial enterprise and was extended to territorial conquest. Under the management of a private company it forged a lucrative market for British industry at the expense of local artisans.

This interpretation postulates, therefore, that capitalist imperialism emerged only in the nineteenth century under English leadership, mixed with the preceding archaic forms. Great Britain combined three anticipatory modalities of contemporary imperialism. It spearheaded forms of colonialism (implantation of populations in conquered territories), formal empire (explicit domination over other nations) and informal empire (pre-eminence through economic supremacy).

This diversity of English variants was established in their colonial (Canada, Australia), formal (India), informal (Latin America) and hybrid (Southern Africa) possessions. But in general it underpinned the capitalist component through the expansion of free trade to ensure the disposal of manufactured surpluses.

Capitalist imperialism has been categorically dominant in the 20th century under the leadership of the United States. That power only took the form of a formal empire for a brief expansionary period. It quickly internationalized the imperatives of capitalism. It resorted to some territorial expansion in the American hemisphere, but in general dispensed with colonies and privileged the mechanisms of association and subordination of local elites.

Wood emphasizes that this form of pure empire of capital is governed by the logic of profit. The occupation of new space is complementary or non-essential. The old explicit and transparent coercion is replaced by the opaque and impersonal modes of economic tyranny.

The underlying social regime is the main differentiating factor in the different empires. The old territorial, commercial and intermediate forms operated in societies very different from contemporary capitalism.

Hegemonic cycles

Another model of imperial dynamics privileges the concept of hegemony in order to distinguish historical varieties. It explores how coercion was combined with consensus and studies the way in which economic supremacy overlapped with territorial expansion and geopolitical superiority (Arrighi, 1999: 42-106).

According to this framework, empires have developed in a succession of systemic cycles of accumulation since the 15th century, mixing economic logics of productive development and financial control with territorial logics of military advantage. Each hegemony entailed distinct global primacies, in the Genoese (1340-1560), Dutch (1560-1780), British (1740-1870) and American (1930-2000?) eras.

The first cycle of Italian cities disrupted the interstices of the medieval system. It privileged long-distance trade through a partnership with the Hispanic-Portuguese empire. That model was succeeded by the Dutch domination, which introduced state structures and military techniques without using them for territorial control. It prioritized financial networks and trading links.

In contrast, British hegemony introduced the territorial component and took advantage of the new centrality of the Atlantic Ocean to forge a maritime empire. It used the advantages of insularity and consolidated a new nation-state by defeating its French adversary. It resorted to settlement of colonists and the use of slavery to build a global supremacy based on free trade and industrial pre-eminence.

The United States achieved global primacy after completing an internal development dominated by the extermination of the indigenous population, widespread slavery and immigration. It promoted the use of gigantic natural resources along with profitable protectionist strategies. In the military expansion of the internal frontier it brought into being the foundations of the planetary gendarme of the 20th century (Arrighi, 1999: 288-390).

This model of hegemonic successions highlights the duration of common capitalist norms over five centuries. It diverges from Wood’s approach, centred on the existence of differentiated social foundations in the tributary, feudal and capitalist regimes. In this framework only England (with intermediate forms) and the United States (fully) conform to the checklist.

The main advantage of Wood’s approach lies in its distinction among the different empires, based on clear definitions of capitalism. This system is based on competition for profits arising from the exploitation of waged workers and not in the pre-eminence of trading channels. The Italian cities and Holland spearheaded varieties of commercial empires and their counterparts in Rome or Spain formed territorial modalities. Capitalism was absent in the domains based on mercantile leadership or spatial primacy.

The empires of the last two centuries were not distinguished from their forerunners by the magnitude of commercial transactions. Such transactions were involved in all the systems of the last two millennia. Nor are the differences derived from the duration of multinational (Great Britain) or continental state modalities (United States), compared to the limited city (Genoa) or protonational (Holland) precursors. Rome and Spain already had gigantic state structures.

The novelty of the English empire was the introduction of a singular base, industrial profit, which the United States subsequently amplified. This peculiarity is erased if one relies on globalized accumulation models that have existed since the 15th century.

It is true that the various empires did not dominate through force alone. Hegemony was equally decisive. But the variety of ideologies reflected the existence of differentiated social foundations. The lust for profit arising from exchange (Genoa and Holland) was based on very different pillars from the drive for profit derived from the investment imperative (England and the United States). If the specificity of each cycle is analyzed by observing these pillars, it clears the path to understanding ancient and contemporary forms of domination.

The classic period

The era of informal empire began in 1830 — with English domination of free trade – and closed in 1870 with the reintroduction of armed confrontation. The return to conflict among the main powers generalized the use of the term imperialism. That notion was put forward by theorists like Hobson, who contrasted the new climate of world confrontation with the previous era of post-Napoleonic equilibria (Hobson, 1980).

In this new framework, all the powers sought to renew their credentials on the battlefield. The stragglers (Germany) wanted to expand their territory to build a formal empire. The rising power (United States) already possessed a favourable economic structure and was preparing to replace the declining English leader. Militaristic effervescence, racist aggressiveness, and chauvinist intolerance led to the death toll of the First World War (Arrighi, 1978: ch 3).

The new empires (Germany, Japan, the United States) fought in alliances or disputes with their predecessors (France, England) for control of the world market, to the detriment of the dying empires (Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal). Disputes were settled through protection and the establishment of monetary areas in the distribution of the periphery.

Lenin’s theory of classical imperialism provided the main conceptualization of that period of traumatic inter-imperialist wars and revolutionary outbreaks. The Bolshevik leader attributed these conflagrations to competition for external markets and sources of supply, amidst a background of colonial possessions that already existed among the older powers. The drive to dispute those territories reinforced the likelihood of war and reduced the margins of diplomatic coexistence.

Starting from this characterization Lenin wrote a political pamphlet that polemicized with the social democratic expectation that war could be avoided through proposals for disarmament and cooperation between rival powers. The communist leader objected, arguing that militarism was not a mistaken policy of the capitalists but the cruel result of competition for profit.

The Russian leader stressed the futility of pacifist persuasion, when the wealthy interests were preparing to settle their differences in the trenches. He argued that the war drive arose from objective tendencies and strategic decisions by the powerful. The warmongering of the time meant that rivalry prevailed over international association in the relationships among large capitalist enterprises (Lenin, 2006).

The leader of the Russian revolution recorded with great realism the main contradictions of his time, as against the utopian expectations of his critics. He advocated internationalist policies of resistance to the immolation of recruits and pointed out that peace could only be won in a simultaneous struggle against capitalism.

In our interpretation of this approach we highlighted this political function of Lenin’s text in the ever-present context of the war. We emphasized that meaning in opposition to other interpretations focused on the economic aspects of that influential text (Katz, 2011: 17-32).

In this connection, Lenin’s conception reformulated the vision expressed by Hilferding. It emphasized the existence of a general shift towards protectionism and the increasing tendency of banking capital to subordinate its peers in commerce and industry. It also highlighted the novel weight of monopolies through the increasing size of companies and the pre-eminence of capital exports as a way of absorbing the profits made in the periphery.

The debate among Marxists about the relevance of these characterizations persists to this day. Several theorists argue that they are not suitable to the interwar period (Harvey, 2018), while others allege an exaggeration of the role of monopoly and the limited relevance of capital exports (Heinrich, 2008: (218-221). Some also single out for criticism the extrapolation of features of the German economy to the rest of the powers (Leo Panitch, 2014).

These objections refer to problems actually present in the theory of classical imperialism, but with little implication in its original formulation. Lenin’s interest was in demonstrating how certain economic imbalances led to inter-imperialist clashes. He analyzed how each productive, commercial or financial feature of the new epoch accentuated the rivalries that were determined on the battlefield.

The primary function of his text was political. That is why he converged in the battle against militarism with the revolutionaries who objected to his economic standpoint (Luxemburg). And on the contrary, he clashed with thinkers who shared his approach to the financial-productive changes but from the opposite side of reformism (Hilferding). The polemical tone of his writings was directed not to protectionism, financial hegemony or monopolies, but to the attitude of the socialists towards the war.

Another great misunderstanding has surrounded the Leninist assessment of imperialism as a “final stage” of capitalism. The communist leader was effectively looking to a revolutionary popular response to the bloodletting of war that would put an end to the global tyranny of profit. The beginning of socialism in Russia corroborated the validity of that expectation.

The subsequent course of history led to another outcome and the period analyzed by Lenin was confined to a classical stage of the capitalist empires. He had managed to perceive the peculiarity of a phase that could have ended the historical persistence of capitalism. But subsequent events did not lead to that extinction.

The postwar changes

The end of the warlike confrontations between rival powers differentiates the imperialism of the second half of the 20th century from its classical precedent. Confrontations persisted but without generalized armed conflicts. They did not extend to the military sphere, and a more concerted geopolitical administration prevailed. The monumental war arsenal of the West was generally used to consolidate the dispossession of the periphery.

The management of the new model under the command of the United States included a novel form of collective imperialism. Western military solidarity was joined ​​with the growing international economic association between firms of different origins. The multinational company expanded and protectionism lost weight against the free trade pressures deployed by the companies that preceded globalization.

The size of the markets, the diversification of supplies and the scale of production were determinants of this new scenario. The drive to reduce costs and increase productivity reinforced alliances between firms. In contrast to the previous period, this interconnection was not limited to companies of the same nationality (Amin, 2013).

But since this internationalization of the economy had no direct correspondence at the state level, imperialism continued to be located in the old institutional structures. No global entity contributed the legal systems, social traditions and political legitimacy required to ensure the global reproduction of capital.

The supremacy of the United States was overwhelming and the imperialism of that period was identified with its imprint. NATO was forged under the leadership of the Pentagon and the United Nations were located in New York. That predominance reflected an economic superiority that was stabilized with the neutralization of rivals. The old demolition of defeated competitors was replaced by support for their reconstruction under the command of the winning power. The United States introduced a system of subaltern alliances to counter the resurgence of its adversaries.

The leading power acted as a global sheriff. It protected all ruling classes from popular insurgency and geopolitical instability. To ensure compliance with this role it obtained external financing to sustain the dollar and Treasury Bonds. The Pentagon was the structural support of Wall Street.

In contrast to classical imperialism, the ruling classes of the First World accepted that military patronage. That is why collective security replaced national defense as the guiding principle of armed intervention. Washington established privileged links with the main elites of the planet and universalized its ideology of celebration of the market and the exaltation of individualism.

The main function of postwar imperialism was to contain the revolutionary surge and the danger of socialism. US bases were established throughout the planet to counter popular uprisings in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The cold war against the USSR was another decisive component of this action. All capitalist classes were aligned in a strategy of tension with the socialist bloc. This confrontation differed qualitatively from the inter-imperial clashes of the past due to the absence of bourgeois primacy in the Soviet Union.

The system of that country was not commanded by a ruling class that owned the means of production and oriented to accumulating capital. The ruling bureaucracy defended its own interests and sought coexistence with Washington to settle disputes in the respective areas of influence. But it did not follow the imperial pattern of subduing territories to increase profits. Harassment of the USSR was a decisive feature of postwar militarism and the end of that regime inaugurated the current stage of 21st century imperialism.

Comparison with the British antecedent

In the last four decades there has been a radical change in the international role of the United States. A persistent crisis of leadership has succeeded the unquestionable postwar primacy of North America. Many authors highlight the similarity of declining trajectories with the English precedent (Roberts, 2016: 39-40). They point to the similarities in monetary management and political action.

Both powers formed the only global capitalist empires. The pre-capitalist (Rome, Spain, Netherlands) and non-capitalist (Soviet Union) rulers could not be pigeon-holed as such. Other failed empires (France) or defeated ones (Germany, Japan) never achieved planetary pre-eminence.

The dominant world status of the Anglo-American duo was based on military superiority and also included the economy, finance and culture. Both powers achieved industrial supremacy and capture of financial flows. They exercised in addition an overwhelming intellectual influence that was confirmed in the universalization of English as a lingua franca.

But the UK distinguished itself from its transatlantic peer by its adaptability to redeployment. It exhibited a flexibility that the United States has not even hinted at (Hobsbawm, 2007: ch 3).

Size is a factor in this disparity. The limited surface area of the British isles promoted emigration and settlement in the immensity of the North American territory. While England had to conquer other regions to dispute pre-eminence, the United States developed with the arrival of the dispossessed families. It based its development on land and not on external maritime incursions. It had certain similarities with the expansion of old Russia into the steppes from the central nucleus in Moscow. It also resorted to a self-centred model based on the domestic market and acted on a global scale only when its endogenous accumulation process had matured. It then entered the battle for imperial leadership.

But that size advantage has proved to be a double-edged sword. It allows it to contend with territorially equivalent rivals (China), but obstructs the adaptation displayed by its predecessor to a location more suitable to pursuing the competitive race.

This lack of North American flexibility also derives from its industrial model. The United States forged the vertically integrated company, with bureaucratic structures commensurate with its huge internal market. On the contrary, England transformed itself into the workshop of the world — with external supply and demand from foreign clients — using highly specialized and flexible companies (Arrighi, 1999: 288-322).

When the transformations of world capitalism affected the competitiveness of this model, Great Britain relegated industry to a renewal of its primacy in commerce and finance. The old manufacturer was converted into a new centre of intermediation and banking. The United States has been unwilling or unable to emulate that mutation. Its industry persists at a disadvantage rooted in the continental dimension of the country and experiments with dubious forays into the transnational sphere. It has sought to compensate for the manufacturing retreat using its the pre-eminence in currency, finance and technology. But it faces trade deficits and debt imbalances of greater size than its predecessor.

American inflexibility in the face of British plasticity has some outstanding military determinants. The United States has forged a military structure that goes qualitatively beyond anything established by England. It has assumed a role of protection of world capitalism that the British never adopted. That unprecedented power reduces its ability to maneuver in the context of the contemporary multipolar scenario.

Britain knew its limits to maintaining world leadership and resigned itself to the loss of its empire through decolonization. America has closed off the paths to replicating that retreat. That is why it engages again and again in unsuccessful operations to rebuild its leadership.

England was able to process its departure from the foreground without giving up external interventionism. It has participated in countless military operations since 1945 and maintains 145 military bases in 42 countries (Pilger, 2020). Under Thatcher it even carried out naval raids of colonial reconquest (Malvinas), to shore up its internal onslaught against the working class and unions.

But those actions are framed in association with the North American imperial substitute. That is why the corollary of the military operation against Argentina developed under Blair’s command in a more subordinate accompaniment to the US wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq (Anderson, 2020).

Washington cannot emulate that British course of secondary military action complementary to that of the imperial leader. No partner replaces it in its pre-eminent role and in the global function that it continues to exercise.

These differences affect the variable application of the informal empire concept. That notion fit perfectly with the UK, but it is of questionable relevance to the North American case. The United States has dominated since the postwar period not only with economic primacy but with unprecedented military blackmail. True, it has never based its power on occupation nor has it built areas of domination or colonization. But it has used its firepower like nobody else.

Britain did not lead crusades on behalf of capitalism as a whole against popular revolutions or threats of socialism. It adapted to the postcolonial context in return for favourable economic agreements. The Pentagon manages the largest arsenal in history and is barred from that course.

The concerted imperial replacement taken by the Anglo-American model is not applicable to the current tension with China. That is why the United States needs to update its primacy with displays of force, but amidst increasingly more adverse results.

Finally, the ideological peculiarities of both powers are also shifting. Although in its heyday England administered a quarter of the planet, it always was explicit in the defense of its economic interests. True, it invoked “civilization” as its purpose, but more often resorted to messages of national superiority based on some founding myth of its own history. It did not abuse its mandate of salvation of the overseas subordinates.

In contrast, the United States forged itself as a nation without ancient roots and extended its domination using universalist ideologies.It has always masked its imperial action with pleas that it was coming to the relief of humanity. That self-deception not only contrasts with British flexibility. It empowers all the ingredients of megalomania that now snarl Washington in a dead end. We will need to see if that impasse now extends to England, or if on the contrary Brexit embodies another episode of the British flexibility to adapt to a new era.

Two different mutations

The three models of imperialism that have ruled since the 19th century were each closely connected with the functioning of capitalism in each era. But the two dimensions are not subject to the same pattern of transformation. Imperialism ensures the continuity of the system and plays a protagonistic role in the major crises. But it operates only as a mechanism of protection for that foundation. It does not constitute, like capitalism, a mode of production or a defining structure of the governing rules in society.

It is important to recognize these differences between the system and its mechanisms, to note how imperialism conforms to each historical period of capitalism. It does not form one of those stages. It only adapts its modalities to the required changes in the system. Capitalism has always included colonial or imperial modalities and has used changing forms of oppression to exercise its growing dominance.

That is why the geopolitical and military dimension of imperialism is so relevant. It helps us to understand how capitalism deals with its own crises and how it responds to popular resistance and revolutionary challenges.

Imperialism presents economic and ideological contours akin to the prevailing mode of capitalism, but its specific imprint is marked by the militaristic aspect. The current identification of the term imperialism with war, occupations and massacres expresses an accurate perception of its meaning. It applies as well to the international scope of its actions.

Certainly there is a peculiar economic facet of imperialism that must be studied in its specific form. That inquiry has led to important discoveries in recent decades. It has demonstrated how the capitalists of the centre appropriate the resources of underdeveloped countries.

The analysis of this dispossession corroborates the contemporary weight of imperialism, but it involves only one component of the phenomenon. The principal firms in advanced countries capture rents and profits from the periphery, based on the geopolitical-military domination that its states exercise globally. The epicentre of imperialism is located in that control. Before investigating the complex mazes of imperial economy it is necessary to clarify those military and state pillars of the arrangement. That is why we have begun our evaluation of 21st century imperialism using this dimension.

Understanding this arrangement requires clarifying the recent economic transformations of capitalism. It is necessary to clarify the changes in the dynamics of surplus value, accumulation and the rate of profit. The initial evaluation of imperialism has proceeded along another path, however. Before investigating foreign investment, the terms of trade or differential rates of exploitation, it is necessary to determine how and by whom geopolitical-military domination is exercised at the global level.

These differences of analysis in the study of capitalism and imperialism are revealed in the dissimilar results of both inquiries. While the transformations registered in capitalism are visible, the changes in imperialism have not yet been defined. They are two processes subject to modifications of a distinct nature.

Contemporary capitalism has radically mutated under the impact of neoliberalism, globalization, digitization, precariousness and financialization. These transformations have no direct correlation in imperialism. The changes on both planes unfold at a differentiated rhythm. The economic mutation is drastic and its geopolitical manifestations are diffuse. Twenty-first century capitalism is totally different from its postwar precedent. But imperialism at present maintains many features of continuity with the previous model. There is ample proof of this asymmetry.

Categorical transformations

Today’s capitalism emerged from the great crisis of the 1970s. This upheaval ended in the new model that neoliberalism embodied. Since then low growth has prevailed in the West with a significant expansion in the East that is not enough to reboot the world economy. The decline of the United States and the rise of China — in a framework of reduced increase in global GDP — synthesize that scenario (Katz, 2020).

Globalization has impacted all areas of the system. It has modified the industrial geography by shifting production to the Asian continent. That region has become the great workshop of the planet, to the detriment of the old manufacturing primacy of Europe and the United States. This turn is based on the increase in exploitation of workers and in a novel process of productive internationalization, accompanied by significant commercial and financial correlates.

The globalization of the economy has shortened times spent on productive activity. It has reinforced the leadership of transnational companies through the international cleavage in the manufacturing process.

It has deepened a new global division of labour, propping up models oriented to exports and articulated by global value chains. These circuits enhance the weight of intermediate goods and consolidate vertical specialization and outsourcing, the relocation of investments and the fragmentation of inputs and outputs.

This drastic change in the productive profile has in turn deepened the subdivision of the old periphery between a group of emerging countries that is industrializing and another that replicates the old pattern of export of primary goods.

The new productive globalization is also based on the revolution in computing that gave birth to digital capitalism. This mutation replicates many characteristics of analogous processes of radical technological transformation that have occurred since the 19th century.

The information revolution has facilitated the cheapening of the labour force and inputs through a significant reduction in the cost of transportation and communications. It has opened the way for multi-million dollar investments in digitization processes, modifying the ranking of the large firms. The high-tech companies lead in earnings and set the pace for all players in the system.

These transformations also consolidate a new situation for labour marked by precariousness, insecurity and flexibilization. The capitalists implement these abuses taking advantage of the enormous reserves of the global labour force. They move plants to regions with weakened, banned or non-existent unions in order to create a climate of fear of job losses. The reconversion of jobs is conditioned by this huge geographic remodeling of industry and services.

The labour process is also registered in an internal differentiation between activities of design, development and manufacture that upset all the distinctions between manual and mental labour. Work identities have been drastically affected by this restructuring.

Financialization constitutes another visible mutation in contemporary capitalism. It includes not only the gigantic increase in financial assets but significant qualitative modifications in the self-financing of companies, the securitization of finance and family management of mortgages and pensions. The convulsions generated by this expansion of the financial universe intertwine with shocks derived from the deterioration of the environment.

Capitalist valorization has undermined for centuries the material foundations of economic reproduction. But the environmental disaster of recent decades tends to break the age-old equilibria that allowed the construction of societies based on exchange with nature. If global warming continues to deepen the ecological footprint, the looming disaster will leave all the known convulsions far behind.

The environmental debacle has some similarities with the demolition generated by the two world wars of the last century. Destructive tendencies have been forged that are beyond the control of the capitalists themselves and can lead to endless disasters.

These dangers periodically surface through capitalist crises of the 21st century. Those outbreaks were not spawned from previous downturns. They burst like market explosions from the bubbles generated by financialization. The 2008 disruption was illustrative of that variety of misalignments. It began with the default of subprime debtors and resulted in a traumatic collapse of interbank operations.

These crises differ significantly from those prevailing in the 1930s. They are not marked by deflation and bank failures. In the contemporary dynamics, they are marked by state rescue of banks and the combination of monetary expansion with fiscal austerity. This sequence confirms the enduring character of state interventionism.

When those financial crises precipitated by speculation in securities and currencies reach intensities of capital importance, underlying productive imbalances also emerge. The old and well-known overproduction is the main cause of these convulsions, but it assumes another scale in the globalized economy.

New forms of itinerant global overproduction impact on all value chains. These tensions go beyond the traditional dispute between powers over the placement of surplus goods and they provoke turbulent processes of capital devaluation.

Mutations in purchasing power, in turn, increase the effect of these contemporary crises. The old stable consumption norm has been replaced by more unpredictable procurement patterns and the erosion of purchasing power deepens income decline and job insecurity. That retraction of consumption crowns the spiral of contradictions of today’s capitalism.

This review of changes in the functioning and stresses of that system illustrates the enormous scale of the registered mutations. The capitalism of the 21st century is radically different from its predecessors of the past century.

Uncertain alterations

The transformations in the imperial sphere do not appear as forcefully as the modifications in capitalism. In imperialism there is a crisis marked by the repeated failure of the US project to recover its world leadership.

The correlation between free-trade capitalism and English supremacy that prevailed in the 19th century or between interventionist capitalism and North American primacy in the 20th century does not exist today. Globalized, digital, precarious and financialized capitalism develops without a geopolitical-military command. The United States fails to lead it, nor are replacements in view.

The United States continues to be the system’s gendarme. With its humungous military budget it rules the seas, controls the skies and manages the computer networks. The bloody air raids of recent decades are a constant reminder of the deadly warning it issued with the atomic bombing of Japan.

But that power has been undermined by the limitations of a power corroded by internal crises that paralyze its leading role in global politics. NATO remains as a behemoth affected by sharp differences over funding. The old empires continue to endure in a furtive (England) or conflictive way (France), but each power seeks to achieve its own global relocation by distancing itself from obedience to Washington.

The United States relies on regional ramifications to sustain its global power. It promotes Israel’s late colonialism to control the Middle East and bolsters Australia’s arsenal to guard Oceania. It retains Canada as an accomplice in its operations and consolidates the bases in Colombia to keep an eye on Latin America. Its Eastern European missiles are aimed at Russia and the weapons provided to Japan and South Korea threaten China.

But what capacity does Washington show to impose its agenda on this network of partners, appendages or vassals? In recent decades it has failed in all regions. It maintains the same formal postwar primacy in a radically opposite setting. It exhibits an enormous warlike power, without the cohesion required to enforce that power.

That is why the imperialism of the 21st century does not present a defined physiognomy. It is a category in gestation, which will only adopt a clear contour when the crisis of the United States reaches a point of resolution.

Turmoil ahead

Studies of imperialism flourished during the last century but decreased dramatically at the beginning of the new millennium. The very use of the term was excluded from the current vocabulary of the Social Sciences. Neoliberalism and globalization monopolized the attention of analysts and dominated all reflections on contemporary capitalism.

The escalation of regional wars, the drama of the refugees and the impact of terrorism reintroduced interest in the issue. Questions about imperialism were associated with the evaluation of the flagging American attempt to recover primacy.

In the past decade that inquiry included a generalized revitalization of the term empire. But that change in language did not change the substance of the problem. In fact, the way in which the two terms are handled is unclear. Imperialism and empire equally fit the role of the United States. Since World War II it no longer operated as just one more opponent on the inter-imperialist chessboard nor did it shrink from serving as a single empire in the entire system.

The United States has not confronted its rivals in war nor has it incorporated in its structure the main ruling classes or states of the planet. It stood at the top of an associated structure of collective imperialism.

As this arrangement is in the process of being remodeled, whether it is to be classified in the plural (imperialism) or singular (empire) is quite unclear. The system of current world domination does not resemble the classic era of inter-imperial battles, nor does it establish an exclusive global management centre.

Other more evaluative applications of empire and imperialism face more drawbacks. They tend to consider or denigrate the modalities of global governance. In conventional Political Science the first term is synonymous with order and the second with confrontation. Both meanings avoid investigating the connection of these variants with the functioning of capitalism or with the needs of the ruling classes.

All the questions generated by 21st century imperialism have taken on another dimension from the shock generated by the Great Confinement of 2020. The crisis of the pandemic has highlighted the magnitude of the natural disasters that capitalism promotes. The coronavirus alarms us to the looming catastrophe if climate change cannot be tempered.

The extensive paralysis of the economy and the unprecedented state aid to avoid depression converged last year with the contraction of workers’ income, increased job insecurity and the reinforcement of inequality. The pandemic has portrayed the functioning of a system based on oppression. This regime could not survive without the protection that imperialism offers to the dominators.

This arrangement performs numerous functions, but it prioritizes the subordination of workers. It is a mechanism built to deal with mass popular resistance. Imperialism includes military intervention against those uprisings and the fomenting of war among the dispossessed themselves to deflect popular discontent.

The great popular revolutions were the main background for the system’s militarism. These uprisings determined the course taken by classical imperialism and its postwar corollary. The current variant will also remain marked by the dynamics assumed by the rebellions of the oppressed. But the more immediate arena of definition of 21st century imperialism is located in the clash that opposes the United States to China.

Katz adds: “We will address that issue in our next text.”



Amin, Samir (2013). Transnational capitalism or collective imperialism?, 23-03.

Anderson, Perry (2020) ¿Ukania perpetua? New Left Review, 125, nov dic

Arrighi, Giovanni (1978). Geometría del imperialismo, Siglo XXI, México.

Arrighi, Giovanni (1999). El largo siglo XX. Akal, Madrid.

Harvey, David (2018). Realities on the Ground,

Heinrich, Michael (2008). Crítica de la economía política: una introducción a El capital de Marx, Escolar y Mayo Editores, 2008 Madrid.

Hobsbawm, Eric (2007). Guerra y paz en el siglo XXI, Editorial Crítica, Barcelona.

Hobson, John Estudio Del Imperialismo (1980) [1902], Madrid, Alianza.

Katz, Claudio (2011). Bajo el imperio del capital, Luxemburg, Buenos Aires.

Katz, Claudio (2020). América Latina en el capitalismo contemporáneo. I-Economía y crisis 7-2-2020,

Lenin, Vladimir (2006). El imperialismo, fase superior del capitalismo Buenos Aires, Quadrata

Panitch, Leo (2014). Repensando o marxismo e o imperialismo para o século XXI, Tensões Mundiais. Fortaleza, v. 10, n. 18, 19.

Pilger, John (2020). El virus más letal no es el covid-19, es la guerra. 19-12,

Roberts Michael (2016). The long depression, Haymarket Books, 2016.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (2003) Empire of capital, Londres/Nueva York, Verso

[1] For another, not unrelated attempt to analyze these disparities, see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “Complex Stratification in the World System: Capitalist Totality and Geopolitical Fragmentation,” Science & Society, Vol. 84, No. 1, January 2020, 95-125.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

In Memory of Ernie Tate (1934-2021)

Ernie Tate was a friend, comrade and collaborator of mine, and of John Riddell’s, for more than 60 years. Here is John’s tribute to his memory, reposted with permission. - Richard Fidler

A Life of Revolutionary Activism

By John Riddell

The socialist movement lost an outstanding educator and organizer with the passing of Ernest (Ernie) Tate in Toronto on 5 February. An outstanding partisan of global anti-imperialist solidarity, Ernie also contributed, with his partner Jess MacKenzie, to building revolutionary Marxist groups and to promoting socialist unity in Canada and Britain.

Raised in an impoverished working-class community in Belfast, Ernie left school at age 14, taking a job at Belfast Mills as apprentice machine attendant. An avid reader and a rebel at heart, Ernie sympathized – unusually, given his Protestant background – with the Irish republican movement.

During a youthful jaunt through France in 1954, Ernie was deeply impressed by the mass solidarity actions celebrating the victory of Vietnamese freedom fighters in Dien Bien Phu. The following year, Ernie took the path of so many of his countrymen and emigrated, settling in Toronto.

Soon after his arrival in 1955, Ernie dropped by the Toronto Labour Bookstore, a small socialist organizing centre which he had seen mentioned in an Irish newspaper. Entering the store, he asked for the novel King Jesus by Robert Graves. Fortunately, the proprietor Ross Dowson turned out to be a socialist with a similarly broad intellectual scope. Dowson had a lot to say about Graves, a British radical poet and historical novelist but soon steered Ernie to a display of socialist newspapers and pamphlets in the back of the store.

Ruth Bullock, Ernie Tate, and Ken Orchard at an anti-nuclear bomb demonstration, Vancouver 1963.

Ernie was pleased to see the display’s pro-Soviet orientation but also noted many writings on display by Leon Trotsky, the historic antagonist of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union. A long conversation ensued. Pro-Soviet currents were then in turmoil as a result of revelations regarding the crimes of Stalin and his regime. Dowson advocated responding through discussion and collaboration among diverse socialist currents, a process that he called “regroupment.” Ernie embraced this goal and pursued it diligently throughout 65 years of activism.

The bookstore, Ernie discovered, doubled as headquarters of a group of about fifteen socialist activists, which that year took the name Socialist Education League (SEL). Dowson introduced Ernie to other members of the group, and Ernie soon joined its ranks.

‘Awakening from a Long Sleep’

“For me as a young person,” Ernie later recalled, “joining a socialist organization, no matter how small, was like at last awakening from a long sleep. Vague ideas and feelings I had about society that I had come to by myself now began to be integrated into a systematic historical and political outlook… Above all, it gave a coherent expression to what had been a sense of injustice that I had until then been unable to articulate… To this day I have always separated those two phases of my adult life: the period before and after joining the group.”1

Ernie found his feet in the SEL; socialist activism came to him naturally. The prospect of socialist regroupment gave the Toronto group prospects far beyond its slender numbers and soon involved Ernie in a complex and important assignment. In 1957, the SEL sent Ernie to New York to help carry out a fusion of youthful socialist forces with the Socialist Workers Party, the US sister organization of the SEL. A year later, these forces joined in creating the Young Socialist Alliance, which was to play a prominent and creative role in the youth upsurge of the 1960s.

The SEL and SWP formed part, Ernie learned, of a global association of revolutionary Marxist groups called the Fourth International, which was distinguished by its alignment with Leon Trotsky in his criticisms of Stalinism and strategy for world revolution.

Mission accomplished, Ernie returned to Toronto with a partner, the New York socialist Hannah Lerner. Hannah took part in Toronto socialist activity for a time but returned to New York two years later. Meanwhile, Ernie plunged into Toronto union work and joined preparations to launch a labour-based political party – today’s NDP. His influence was felt in every work area. In the SEL, Ernie was quick to state his views and defend them, even when they ran against the grain of his consensus-oriented organization. Nonetheless, despite occasional discord, Ernie long maintained a fruitful collaboration with Ross Dowson and other SEL comrades.

Vancouver Years

In 1962, Ernie trekked west with an SEL organizing tour to Vancouver, where he joined his partner Ruth Robertson. They had a son, Michael, in 1963; Ruth returned to Toronto the following year.

While in Vancouver, Ernie headed the local branch of the SEL, which was now known as the League for Socialist Action (LSA). He worked with some success to bring the Vancouver and Toronto LSA branches into more harmonious alignment. During these years, the LSA branches began to attract many promising student activists. With his charm, energy, generosity of spirit, and wide intellectual perspectives, Ernie won an extensive range of such youthful contacts as friends and recruited many of them to LSA membership.

Ernie had an instinctive feel for and capacity to learn from the nascent social movements in which the younger comrades were active. He was unique in his capacity to span the two generations and social milieus, and thus to facilitate their ultimate fusion into a single team.

Ernie was deeply engaged in the formation of the New Democratic Party’s youth wing and in consolidating union support for the new labour-based party. But even more than the NDP, it was the Cuban revolution that dominated the thinking of LSA members in the early 1960s. Welcoming the revolution with joy, Ernie joined in building the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a broadly based alliance to help defend Cuba against US aggression and to convey Cuba’s message to a broad public in Canada.

Fourth International Reunification

Revolutionary socialists worldwide rallied to defend revolutionary Cuba, and this process promoted a wide-ranging rapprochement among forces in the Fourth International that had been separated by a factional breach during the 1950s. Among the first to perceive this process, Ernie was impatient with those who insisted on doctrinal differences as cause to resist unity.

“There are differences in the International,” Ernie wrote in a November 1961 letter. “But they are not of interest to the large part of our readers and appear esoteric. They will be resolved not by paper agreements but around issues and struggles. We should look at who is coming toward us and not be overly concerned with maintaining our political virginity.”2

Most of the Fourth International’s scattered sections reunified in 1963, and the small but ambitious world movement began to put on weight and muscle and gain in influence. The International had a major weak spot, however: it lacked an effective section in Britain.

As part of its commitment to Fourth International reunification, the LSA’s Canadian section, maintained a full-time representative in London, Alan Harris, aided by his wife Connie. Alan worked for several years with the International’s supporters in Britain and was now nearing the end of his assignment. Ernie, with his Northern Irish background and strong socialist credentials, was the logical replacement. In 1965, Ernie moved to London on a staff assignment from the LSA to help assure the success of the Fourth International’s reunification, particularly through establishing a viable national section in Britain.

Assignment in London 1965–69

Once in London, Ernie set up Pioneer Books to continue the distribution, started by Alan and Connie Harris, of socialist books and pamphlets, mostly published by the SWP. Ernie arranged to rent space at 8 Toynbee Street, which became a centre for Fourth International supporters. He collaborated with a group of the International’s supporters in Nottingham called the International Group (IG). Early in 1966, Pat Jordan, editor of the IG’s publication The Week moved to London, and a year later the IG members launched the International Marxist Group (IMG) as the British Section of the Fourth International.

Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie

In late 1966, Ernie formed an enduring partnership with Jess MacKenzie, a Scottish socialist, and the couple were henceforth regarded by friends and comrades alike as an effective political team.

The Pioneer Book Service flourished under Ernie’s care, providing Marxist books to a growing socialist milieu at a time when writings by Lenin, Trotsky, or Ernest Mandel were not to be found in mainstream bookshops. Ernie and Jess worked on the IMG’s political projects, and Jess was, for a time, organizer of the IMG’s small London branch.

Let’s let Phil Hearse, Jess and Ernie’s close comrade during their London years, tell about their work in Britain.

Phil Hearse on the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign

“At the 1965 World Congress of the Fourth International asked its sections to turn toward solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle. The IMG was instrumental in forming the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), in which Ernie was a leading light. Through this, Ernie became known to wider sections of the Left, and the campaign enabled him to put his engaging personality to good political use. He and Jess embodied some of the best features of the North American Trotskyist tradition at that time – calm and reasoned judgement, together with organizational seriousness. Ernie combined that with boundless good humour, a dry wit and a winning smile.

“To build the VSC meant working with some of the well-known left wingers who supported the campaign, like engineering union executive member Ernie Roberts, Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, members of the New Left Review team like Quintin Hoare and Perry Anderson – and, crucially, Tariq Ali, former President of the Oxford University student union, a highly effective speaker and VSC’s best known figure.

“VSC revived the idea of solidarity, unconditional support for the oppressed in struggle, resuming in some ways the mood of the Left during the Spanish Civil War.

Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration, London

“Ernie, Jess, and Pat Jordan were all involved in organizing the VSC’s first major demonstration in October 1967, which finished with clashes outside the old American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The National Liberation Front’s spectacular Tet Offensive at the end of January 1968 fuelled the next major demonstration in March of that year, which finished with even more violent clashes with the police defending the embassy – and the giant demonstration of 200,000 that followed in October.

“Ernie became centrally involved in a linked major initiative, the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, which mobilised well-known figures to weigh the evidence, of which there were ample quantities, of American war crimes in Vietnam. Ernie worked with Ralph Schoenman, Bertrand Russell’s key assistant, and his work on the Tribunal brought him into contact with such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer KS Karol, Simone de Beauvoir, Scottish miners leader Lawrence Daly, and Isaac Deutscher.”

“At the 1965 World Congress of the Fourth International asked its sections to turn toward solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle. The IMG was instrumental in forming the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), in which Ernie was a leading light. Through this, Ernie became known to wider sections of the Left, and the campaign enabled him to put his engaging personality to good political use. He and Jess embodied some of the best features of the North American Trotskyist tradition at that time – calm and reasoned judgement, together with organizational seriousness. Ernie combined that with boundless good humour, a dry wit and a winning smile.

“To build the VSC meant working with some of the well-known left wingers who supported the campaign, like engineering union executive member Ernie Roberts, Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, members of the New Left Review team like Quintin Hoare and Perry Anderson – and, crucially, Tariq Ali, former President of the Oxford University student union, a highly effective speaker and VSC’s best known figure.
“VSC revived the idea of solidarity, unconditional support for the oppressed in struggle, resuming in some ways the mood of the Left during the Spanish Civil War.

“Ernie, Jess, and Pat Jordan were all involved in organizing the VSC’s first major demonstration in October 1967, which finished with clashes outside the old American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The National Liberation Front’s spectacular Tet Offensive at the end of January 1968 fuelled the next major demonstration in March of that year, which finished with even more violent clashes with the police defending the embassy – and the giant demonstration of 200,000 that followed in October.

“Ernie became centrally involved in a linked major initiative, the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, which mobilised well-known figures to weigh the evidence, of which there were ample quantities, of American war crimes in Vietnam. Ernie worked with Ralph Schoenman, Bertrand Russell’s key assistant, and his work on the Tribunal brought him into contact with such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer KS Karol, Simone de Beauvoir, Scottish miners leader Lawrence Daly, and Isaac Deutscher.”

Back to Canada

Ernie and Jess had a significant impact on the political culture of revolutionary Marxism in Britain. Hearse tells us, “It was through comrades like Ernie that the far left was able to raise its sights to a new conception of internationalism and a deeper understanding of gender and racial oppression.”

Despite all these achievements, however, Jess and Ernie were never able to find adequate financial support for their British venture. Promised payments from the LSA in Canada were infrequent and inadequate. Family and personal responsibilities increasingly pressed in on them. So it was, Hearse explains, that in 1969 “they decided to go back to Canada, where they could get well-paid jobs, meet their commitments, and prepare for the future.”

Yet despite his immense reputation and record of achievement in the socialist movement, Ernie was not integrated into the LSA’s leadership in Toronto. There was a fractious debate over a terminological issue: Ernie considered it premature to affirm that the LSA was the “nucleus” of the future mass revolutionary party. Neither the terminological issue and the breach on the leadership level were resolved.

New Perspectives in Toronto

Nonetheless, Ernie and Jess continued their political and trade union work as LSA members, while setting about to rebuild their lives on a firmer foundation. Ernie upgraded his job qualifications through three years’ study at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, winning two prizes for English writing assignments. He took engineering jobs at several industrial plants, including at Toronto Hydro from 1977 until his retirement in 1995. During his final years on the job, he led the successful campaign of the Hydro unionists against privatization in the 1990s.

After some years of preparations, Ernie and Jess acquired a house in Toronto, built a summer home on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, and devoted fond attention to gardening and to their forest getaway. It was a happy outcome for them both, which they shared generously through hospitality to friends, neighbours, and comrades.

Meanwhile, Ernie and Jess remained actively involved in the LSA. On three occasions, Ernie stepped forward to provide decisive help.

The first occasion occurred in the summer of 1972 when Ross Dowson resigned from his leadership post in the LSA. By this time, the LSA had several hundred members in more than a dozen branches from coast to coast. The LSA was fraught with internal tensions. Ernie stepped forward to advise and assist the team of younger, less experienced leaders in holding the League together and organizing a thorough discussion of the disputed issues.

The second occasion arose in 1977. The LSA joined with three other Fourth Internationalist groups in Canada in undertaking a complex fusion. Ernie played a central role in the joint leadership discussions, working to encourage the mutual confidence needed to carry through the merger. The fusion created a new organization, Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire (RWL/LOR), which briefly embraced close to 500 members – the numerical highpoint of the Fourth International’s history in Canada.

Two years later, Ernie helped the RWL carry out a campaign to vastly increase its presence in industrial trade unions, holding weekly classes to instruct members in elementary factory skills. “I thought it was a great thing,” he later commented, but the effort soon swerved sharply in an extremist and sectarian direction, colonizing workplaces where he saw little or no scope for union work. “Pure, unadulterated nonsense,” he later commented. “The ‘Turn to Industry’ destroyed the movement.” Ernie resigned from the RWL in the 1980s.

New Directions

Meanwhile, Ernie was reaching out in many new directions.

  • He rallied to the protest movements against US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “His insights about his own anti-war experiences decades earlier were invaluable,” recalls these movements’ central organizer, James Clark.
  • Ernie and Jess were active supporters of the Fight for $15 and Fairness minimum wage campaign, joining with hundreds to celebrate Bill 148 (later overruled) that legislated this reform.
  • Ernie contributed detailed written testimony to the Undercover Policing Inquiry, an inquiry launched in 2015 into police spying in England and Wales since 1968.
  • In 2019, Ernie was one of a handful of speakers from outside Latin America to speak at an international conference on Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism in Havana, Cuba.
  • And throughout all this, Ernie worked away on preparation of his uniquely insightful two-volume memoir, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s. Published in 2014 by Resistance Books, the memoir provides a searching portrait of a revolutionary working-class current in Canada and Britain during its historic highpoint of militancy.
  • He took part in successive socialist regroupment ventures: the New Politics Initiative, Rebuilding the Left, the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly, and Socialist Project.

Alongside his continuing activism, Ernie joined with Jess in writing a succession of thorough, probing, and thoughtful papers on major issues facing world socialism, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, epochal changes in China, the rise of the Scottish Socialist Party, and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. [Articles by Ernie Tate published by The Bullet.]

Steve Maher of Socialist Project recalls:

“Ernie came to every meeting, all the talks, taking diligent notes. He’d always speak, asking probing questions and offering rich insight – a highlight of the evening.

“Ernie always had a bright smile. Open to questions, he related to others with warmth. When he encountered disagreement, he did not shy back; he would always keep the discussion open.

“What drove him? He was just so committed to the cause of the working class.”

After his 65 years of fruitful socialist engagement and comradeship, Ernie leaves to us a wealth of gifts: the memory of his passion, his sincerity, the warmth of his smile, his welcoming inclusivity, and a rich legacy of ideas and achievements whose influence will be long felt in the socialist movement.

Reposted from Socialist Project The Bullet. With thanks for editing assistance to Phil Hearse, Richard Fidler, Suzanne Weiss, and Jess MacKenzie.

Reviews of Ernie Tate’s Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s


  1. Ernest Tate, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, London: Resistance Books, 2014, vol. 1, pp 30-31.
  2. Letter to John Riddell, 11 November 1961.