Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Claudio Katz on deciphering China


In an article published here last September, Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz assessed China’s location within the global constellation of national forces and concluded that the Asian giant was neither an imperialist power nor part of the Global South of underdeveloped countries. At the conclusion of his article, I posted links to a three-part series of articles Katz had recently published in which he discussed the major features of China’s diverse class structure and socio-political regime: in particular the creation in recent years of a new urban proletariat that is already mobilizing in defense of its interests; the rise of a new capitalist class heavily involved in international trade and investment but not in direct control of the state; and a bureaucratic and autocratic ruling elite that is still autonomous of this bourgeoisie. China’s future evolution, he argued, depended very much on external circumstances, and in particular the impact of mass workers’ and popular struggles in the global context.

Those three articles are now available in English in Links, an international journal of socialist renewal. Of particular interest is Katz’s analysis of China as a society in transition. Is it tending towards socialism, or towards capitalism? The outcome is undecided, he says, but he emphasizes that China’s phenomenal development of the last three decades builds on social and economic foundations established in the first three decades after the 1949 revolutionary victory, a legacy that has not been eliminated. Interested readers can also pursue these issues by consulting some of the sources cited by Katz in the extensive bibliographies attached to each instalment.

Deciphering China (Part I): Decoupling or New Silk Road?http://links.org.au/deciphering-china-decoupling-or-new-silk-road

Deciphering China (Part II): Capitalism or Socialism?http://links.org.au/deciphering-china-capitalism-or-socialism

Deciphering China (Part III): Projects in Dispute http://links.org.au/deciphering-china-projects-in-dispute

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The imperial system in crisis


Russian armoured vehicles proceeding toward Kherson, Ukraine.

Claudio Katz is an economist, professor at the University of Buenos Aires, and member of Economists of the Left. He is also a research officer with CONICET, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina.

This is a synthesis of a paper he presented at the conference on “Imperialism in the new global situation,” held in the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico DF, June 6, 2022. View a video of the presentation here. Read the original in Spanish here. This translation by Federico Fuentes is reproduced from Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, where it was first published.


Abstract: Imperialism safeguards the exploitation of workers and the subjugation of the periphery, using mechanisms adapted to the transformations undergone by capitalism. That adaptation is an ongoing process at present. US leadership has been undermined by economic deterioration and failed wars. It also lacks the plasticity its British predecessor had for handing over command.

Russia does not participate in the dominant group, but is driving forward the gestation of a non-hegemonic empire, one quite distinct from tsarism and the USSR. China’s protagonism is not synonymous with imperial expansion. Its defensive strategies coexist with an incomplete capitalist restoration that has incorporated the accumulation of profits at the expense of the periphery. In other regions contested pre-eminence has given new currency to the status of sub-imperialism.

The centrality of coercion to imperialism is diluted by theses that solely focus on hegemony. The current imperial system diverges from the old rivalries between powers and cannot be clarified through economic criteria alone. Geopolitical confrontations disprove the thesis of a global empire sustained by transnationalised classes and states.


Debates about imperialism have reappeared after a winding detour. During the first half of the past century, this concept was widely utilised to characterise bellicose confrontations between great powers. Subsequently, it was identified with exploitation of the periphery by the economies of the centre, until the rise of neoliberalism lessened the conceptual weight of this term.

At the beginning of the new millennium, focus on imperialism took a back seat, with the notion itself falling into disuse. This disinterest coincided with a weakening of critical viewpoints on contemporary society. But the United States invasion of Iraq eroded this complacency and triggered a resurgence of discussions on the mechanisms of international domination. Denunciations of imperialism regained importance and criticisms of US military aggressiveness multiplied.

These objections subsequently took on the substitute notion of hegemony, which gained importance amid studies on the decline of the United States in the face of China’s rise. Hegemony was emphasised to assess how the dispute between the world’s two major powers was unfolding in the geopolitical, ideological and economic terrain. The coercive feature that distinguishes imperialism from other notions lost its relevance in many reflections on the US-China confrontation.

Just as this replacement notion seemed to prevail — alongside the new centrality given to the notions of multipolarity and hegemonic transition — references to imperialism regained weight due to an unexpected event. This term has reappeared with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as a means to highlight Moscow’s expansionism.

Unique features and adaptations

The Western media frequently use the category of imperialism to contrast the tyrannical policies of the Kremlin or Beijing with the respectful actions of Washington or Brussels. This biased use of the term hinders any understanding of the problem. The logic of imperialism is only understandable if we overcome these crude views and explore the relationship of the concept with its basis in capitalism.

This analytical path has been explored by various Marxist thinkers, who study the contemporary dynamics of imperialism on the basis of mutations that have occurred in the capitalist system. In these approaches, imperialism is seen as a notion that incorporates the international mechanisms of domination used by the enriched minorities to exploit the popular majorities.

Imperialism is the main instrument of this subjection, but it operates not within each country but at the level of inter-state relations and in the dynamics of competition, the use of force and military intervention. It is an essential mechanism for the continuity of capitalism and has been present since the first days of the system, mutating in accordance with the changes within this social regime. Imperialism has never constituted a specific stage or epoch of capitalism. It has always embodied the forms adopted by geopolitical-military supremacy in each era of the system.

Because of this historical variability, today’s imperialism differs from its antecedents. Not only is it qualitatively different from pre-capitalist (feudal, tributary or slave) empires, which were based on territorial expansion or control of trade, but it bears little resemblance to the classic imperialism conceptualised by Lenin, when great powers waged war for control of markets and colonies.

Contemporary imperialism also differs from the US-led model of the second half of the 20th century. The world’s leading power introduced novel elements of collective coordination and subjugation of partners to ensure the protection of all dominant classes in the face of popular insurgency and the danger of socialism.

In all these various stages, imperialism guaranteed that advanced economies benefited from the use of the resources of the periphery. The coercive devices used by the great powers ensured that the capitalists of the centre captured the wealth of dependent countries. In this way, imperialism ensured the continuity of underdevelopment in relegated parts of the world.

This perpetuation recreated the mechanisms of transfer of value from dominated economies to their dominant peers. Inequality between the two poles of world capitalism was reproduced through various productive, trade and financial modalities.

Mutations and lack of definition

Twenty-first century imperialism must be evaluated in light of the enormous changes that have occurred in contemporary capitalism. For the past 40 years a new pattern of accumulation has prevailed based on low growth in the West and significant expansion in the East linked together by the globalisation of production. Internationalisation of the manufacturing process, subcontracting and value chains underpin this productive model that has been sustained by the information revolution. This development of digital capitalism has led to mass unemployment and to the generalisation of precariousness, insecurity and labor flexibilisation.

This new model operates through financialisation, which introduced credit autonomy for companies, the securitisation of banks, and family management of mortgages and pensions. The growing weight of the financial sector within the current functioning of the economy has, in turn, multiplied the cases of periodic outbreak of deep crises.

Speculative bubbles — which corrode the banking system and lead to increasingly large-scale government bailouts — have accentuated the imbalances of today’s capitalism. The system has been greatly affected by the tensions caused by overproduction (which propelled globalisation) and the fracturing of purchasing power (which boosted neoliberalism).

The current scheme, moreover, incubates potential catastrophes of greater scope due to the relentless deterioration of the environment generated by competition for greater profits. The recent pandemic was only a warning in terms of the grave scale of these imbalances. The end of the pandemic has led not to the expected “return to normality”, but rather to a scenario of war, inflation and breakdown of global supply chains.

The crisis is beginning to take on new contours and no one knows what direction economic policy will take in the coming period. Alongside renewed state intervention, a dispute over whether to pursue a neo-Keynesian turn or an opposite path of relaunching neoliberalism remains unresolved.

Either of these paths will simply ratify the pre-eminence of the new model of globalised, digital, precarious and financialised capitalism, with its ensuant scale of unmanageable contradictions. This model is as visible as the dramatic magnitude of its imbalances.

Clarity on contemporary capitalism does not extend, however, to the geopolitical or military terrain. Twenty-first century imperialism is marked by an accumulation of uncertainties, lack of definitions and ambivalences that go far beyond its economic foundation. The radical mutations that have taken place in recent decades in this latter sphere have not been extended to other areas. It is this divorce that underpins the enormous complexity of the current imperial framework.

Erosion of imperial leadership

The existence of a dominant bloc led by the United States is the main characteristic of the contemporary imperial system. The world’s largest power is the greatest exponent of the new model and the clear manager of the apparatus of international coercion that secures domination by the wealthy. A diagnosis of existing imperialism passes through an evaluation of the United States, which concentrates all the tensions of this apparatus.

The primary contradiction of present-day imperialism lies in the impotence of its conductor. The colossus of the North has seen its leadership eroded as a consequence of the deep crisis affecting its economy. Washington has lost the preponderance it had in the past and its declining manufacturing competitiveness is not offset by its continued financial domination or its significant technological supremacy.

The United States was able to corroborate its advantages compared to other powers during the 2008 crisis. But the major setbacks in Europe and Japan did not lessen the systemic decline of the US economy, nor did it attenuate China’s sustained rise. The United States has not been able to contain the geographical reconfiguration of world production towards Asia.

This economic erosion is affecting US foreign policy, which has lost its traditional domestic support. The old homogeneity of the Yankee giant has been shattered by the dramatic political rift confronting the country. The United States is corroded by racial tensions and political-cultural fractures that counterpose the “America First” sentiments of the interior with the globalism of the coastal populations.

This deterioration has had an impact on Pentagon operations, which can no longer count on the support they once enjoyed in the past. The privatisation of war is taking place in a context of growing domestic disapproval of foreign military adventures.

The US economy is not simply facing a reversal of its continued supremacy. The international weight of the US state apparatus and the primacy of its finances contrast with the country’s trade and productive decline.

This erosion does not imply that an inexorable and uninterrupted decline will take place. The United States has not managed to restore its old leadership, but it continues to play a dominant role and its imperial future cannot be clarified by applying the historical-determinist criteria postulated by the theory of cyclical rises and declines of empires. The decline of the US economy is synonymous with crisis, but not with terminal collapse at some pre-determined date.

In fact, the power that the United States preserves is based more on its military deployments than on the impact of its economy. For this reason, it is essential to analyse the world’s largest power through the imperial lens.

Military failures

Washington has been trying for several decades to regain its leadership through the use of force. The main features of today’s imperialism are concentrated in these incursions. The Pentagon manages a network of contractors who enrich themselves through war by recycling the military-industrial apparatus. They retain the same pre-eminence in periods of wartime détente as they do in periods of high conflict.

The US economic model of rearmament is reproduced via increased exports, high prices and permanent displays of firepower. This visibility requires the multiplication of hybrid wars and all kinds of incursions by para-state formations.

With these deadly instruments, the United States has generated Dantesque scenarios of deaths and refugees. It has resorted to hypocritical justifications for humanitarian intervention and a “war against terrorism” to carry out heinous invasions in the “Greater Middle East”.

These operations included the gestation of the first jihadist gangs, which later took their own path of attacking their US godfather. The marginal terrorism that these groups fostered never reached the terrible scale of state terrorism that the Pentagon oversees. Washington has gone a long way towards completely pulverising some countries.

But the most striking feature of this destructive model has been its resounding failure. In the past twenty years, the project of US recomposition via military action has failed again and again. The “American century” conceived by neoconservative thinkers was a short-lived fantasy that even the Washington establishment abandoned to follow the advice of more pragmatic and realistic advisers.

Pentagon occupations failed to achieve their expected results and the United States was converted into a superpower that loses wars. Bush, Obama, Trump and, most recently, Biden have failed in all their attempts to use the country’s military superiority to induce a revival of the US economy.

This failure has been particularly visible in the Middle East. Washington has used its aggressions to stigmatise the peoples of that region, with images of primitive, authoritarian and violent masses unable to assimilate the wonders of modernity.

This nonsense was spread by the media to cover up for the US attempts to appropriate for itself the world’s largest oil reserves. But, after a tumultuous crusade, the United States was humiliated in Afghanistan, withdrew from Iraq, was unable to subdue Iran, failed in its attempts to create puppet governments in Libya and Syria, and has even had to deal with the boomerang effect of the jihadists that now fight against it.

Inflexible framework

The misfortunes faced by the world’s largest power will not lead it to abandon external interventionism or to withdraw to its own territory. The US ruling class needs to maintain its imperial action in order to sustain the primacy of the dollar, its control over oil, the business dealings of the military- industrial complex, the stability of Wall Street and the profits of technology companies.

For this reason, all White House occupants have tried new variants of the same counter-offensive. No US president can give up on attempts to reconstruct the country’s primacy. All of them have adopted this objective, but never achieved it. They all suffer from the same compulsion to seek out some path towards recovering their weakened leadership.

The United States does not have the plasticity of its British predecessor to hand over global command to a new partner. It does not have the capacity to execute a redeployment that was demonstrated by its transatlantic peer in the previous century. US inflexibility hinders it in adjusting to the current context and accentuates the difficulties it has in exercising leadership of the imperial system.

This rigidity is largely due to the commitments of a power that no longer acts alone. Washington heads a network of international alliances built in the mid-twentieth century to deal with the so-called socialist camp. This network is based on a close association with European alter-imperialism, which carries out its interventions under the aegis of the United States.

The capitalists of the Old Continent defend their own business dealings with autonomous operations in the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe, but act in strict harmony with the Pentagon and under a command articulated through NATO. The great empires of the past (England, France) preserve their influence in the old colonies, but all their moves are subject to Washington’s veto.

The same subordinate partnership is maintained with the co-empires of Israel, Australia and Canada. They share with their referent custody of the global order and carry out actions in line with the demands of their guardian. They tend to defend the same interests on a regional scale that the United States secures globally.

This articulated global system is a feature that today’s imperialism inherited from its post-war precedent. It operates in complete contrast with the model of diversified powers that disputed primacy during the first half of the previous century. The crisis of the hierarchical structure that succeeded this previous model is the critical feature of 21st century imperialism.

A forceful expression of this inconsistency was the fleeting character of the unipolar model that the neoconservative project imagined for a new and prolonged “American century”. Instead of this renaissance, a multipolar context emerged, confirming the loss of US supremacy vis-à-vis numerous actors in world geopolitics. Washington’s desired predominance has been replaced by a greater dispersion of power, which contrasts with the bipolarity that prevailed during the Cold War and with the failed attempt to impose a unipolar model following the USSR’s implosion.

Today’s imperialism operates, therefore, around a dominant bloc led by the United States and managed through NATO in close association with Europe and Washington’s regional partners. But the Pentagon’s failures to exercise its authority have created the current unresolved crisis, which is verified by the emergence of multipolarity.

A non-hegemonic empire in gestation

How can this updated concept of imperialism be applied to powers that are not part of this dominant bloc? This question hovers over the most complex enigmas of the 21st century. It is clear that Russia and China are large rival powers of NATO, which in the existing context are located in a non-hegemonic sphere. Given this differentiated location, can they be said to hold an imperial status?

Clarifying this status has become particularly unavoidable in Russia’s case, following the start of the war in Ukraine. For Western liberals, Moscow’s imperialism is an obvious fact, one rooted in the authoritarian history of a country that shunned the virtues of modernity to opt for the dark backwardness of the East. Using this tired, old script from the Cold War, they counterpose Russian totalitarianism to the wonders of US democracy.

But it is impossible to clarify the contemporary profile of the Eurasian giant with such absurd assumptions. Russia’s potential imperial status must be evaluated in terms of the consolidation of capitalism and the transformation of the old bureaucracy into a new oligarchy of millionaires.

It is evident that the pillars of capitalism have been consolidated in Russia, with the entrenchment of private ownership of the means of production and consequent patterns of profit, competition and exploitation, under a political model at the service of the ruling class. Yeltsin forged a republic of oligarchs and Putin simply curbed the predatory dynamics of that system, without reversing the privileges enjoyed by the newly enriched minority.

Russian capitalism is very vulnerable to the uncontrolled influence maintained by different types of mafias. Informal mechanisms of surplus appropriation also recycle the economic adversities of the old model of compulsive planning. Moreover, the predominant pattern of raw materials exports affects the manufacturing apparatus and reproduces a significant draining of national resources abroad.

On the geopolitical level, Russia is a favourite target of NATO, which has tried to break up the country by means of a large deployment of missiles on its border. But Putin has also stepped up Russian intervention in the post-Soviet sphere and has carried out military actions that go beyond any defensive dynamic and logic of deterrence.

In this context, Russia is not part of the dominant imperialist circuit, but it implements policies of domination in its region that are typical of a non-hegemonic empire in gestation.

Differences with the past

Moscow does not participate within the dominant group of world capitalism. It lacks a significant finance capital sector and has few large international companies. It has specialised in the export of oil and gas, and has consolidated its position as an intermediate economy with few connections with the periphery. It does not obtain significant profits from unequal exchange.

However, with this secondary economic location, Russia exhibits a potentially imperial profile based on its foreign interventions, powerful geopolitical actions and deep tensions with the United States.

This external protagonism has not led to the reconstitution of the old tsarist empire. The differences with that past are as monumental as the qualitative differences with the social regimes of the feudal era.

The asymmetries are equally significant with regards to the USSR. Putin has not reconstituted so-called “Soviet imperialism”, an inconsistent category that is structurally incompatible with the non-capitalist character of the model that existed prior to its implosion in 1989. The USSR was led by a ruling bureaucracy that acted in an oppressive manner, but it did not engage in imperialist actions in its conflicts with Yugoslavia, China or Czechoslovakia.

At present, internal colonialism persists, perpetuating inequalities between regions and the primacy of the Great Russian minority. But this oppressive modality does not achieve the scale of the apartheid in South Africa or Palestine. Moreover, the determinant factor for an imperial status is external expansion, which until the Ukrainian war only appeared to be a tendency when it came to Moscow.

The imperialist project is effectively backed by right-wing sectors that promote the business of war, foreign adventures, nationalism and Islamophobic campaigns. But this course is resisted by an internationalised liberal elite and Putin has, for a while, governed by maintaining a balance between both groups.

It should not be forgotten that Russia is also located at the antipodes of a dependent or semi-colonial status. It is a major international player with a strong protagonism abroad, that has modernised its military structure and upheld its position as the world’s second largest arms exporter.

Instead of helping its neighbours, Moscow reinforces its own dominant project by, for example, sending troops to Kazakhstan to support a neoliberal government that plunders oil revenues, represses strikes and outlaws the Communist Party.

The impact of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has introduced a qualitative shift in the dynamics of Russia, and the final results of this incursion will have a drastic impact on the country’s geopolitical status. The imperial tendencies that only appeared as embryonic possibilities have taken on a new significance.

Certainly, the US was primarily responsible through its attempts to bring Kyiv into NATO’s missile network directed against Moscow and by encouraging the violence of far-right militias in the Donbas. But Putin carried out an inadmissible military action, one that was functional to Western imperialism and that has no justification as a defensive action. The head of the Kremlin showed contempt for Ukrainians, aroused hatred towards the occupier and ignored the widespread aspiration for peaceful solutions. With his incursion, he created a very negative scenario for the emancipatory hopes of the peoples of Europe.

The final outcome of the incursion remains undefined and it is not known whether the effects of sanctions will be felt most in Russia or the West. But the scale of the humanitarian tragedy in terms of deaths and refugees is already huge and is convulsing the entire region. The United States is bent on prolonging the war to push Moscow into the same quagmire that the USSR faced in Afghanistan. That is why it is pushing Kyiv to reject negotiations that could halt hostilities. Washington intends to subordinate Europe to its militaristic agenda through an interminable conflict that would ensure Brussels’ financing of NATO. It no longer aspires to incorporate only Ukraine into that military alliance. It is now also pushing for the entry of Finland and Sweden.

In summary: Russia is a capitalist country that, until the incursion into Ukraine, did not have the general features of an imperial aggressor. But Putin’s path of geopolitical offensive bolsters that profile and tends toward transforming the empire in gestation into a consolidated empire. The failure of this operation could also lead to a premature neutralisation of the nascent empire.

China’s protagonism

China shares with Russia an analogous position within the non-hegemonic conglomerate and faces a similar conflict with the United States. For this reason, the same question arises regarding its current status: is it an imperialist power?

In China’s case, it is worth noting the exceptional development it has achieved in recent decades on the basis of socialist foundations, market complements and capitalist parameters. It has established a model that is connected with globalisation but centred on the local retention of surpluses. This combination has allowed for intense local accumulation intertwined with globalisation through reinvestment circuits and important controls on the movement of capital. The economy has steadily expanded, but without the neoliberalism and financialisation that affected its competitors.

China was also hit by the 2008 crisis, which introduced an insurmountable ceiling to the previous model of financed exports to the United States. This “Chinamerica” link became exhausted, revealing the imbalance generated by a trade surplus resolved through gigantic debts. This imbalance led to the current crisis.

The Chinese leadership initially opted for a shift towards local economic activity. But this decoupling did not generate benefits equivalent to those obtained under the previous globalised scheme. The new course accentuated overinvestment, real estate bubbles and a vicious circle of oversaving and overproduction, which forced China to resume its search for external markets through the ambitious New Silk Road project [also known as Belt and Roads Initiative].

This path is giving rise to tensions with China’s partners and faces the great limitation of an eventual stagnation of the world economy. It is very difficult to sustain a gigantic international infrastructure plan in a scenario of low global growth.

During the pandemic, China once again exhibited its greater level of efficiency compared with the United States and Europe, with its expeditious mechanisms for containing COVID-19. But the virus emerged from within its territory as a result of the imbalances precipitated by globalisation. Urban overcrowding and lack of controls on food industrialisation illustrate the dramatic consequences of capitalist penetration.

China is currently affected by the war that followed the pandemic. Its economy is highly susceptible to food and energy inflation. Moreover, it has to contend with the obstacles that hinder the functioning of global value chains.

A new location

China has not completed its transition to capitalism. This regime is very present in the country but it does not dominate across the entire economy. There is a significant prevalence of private ownership of large companies, which operate within the rules of profit, competition and exploitation, generating acute imbalances of overproduction. But unlike what happened in Eastern Europe and Russia, the new bourgeois class did not achieve control of the state. This prevents it from establishing the pre-eminence of the capitalist norms that prevail in most of the world.

China is defending itself in the geopolitical arena from US harassment. Obama initiated a sequence of aggressions, which Trump redoubled and Biden reinforced. The Pentagon has erected a naval encirclement while accelerating the gestation of a “NATO of the Pacific”, together with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. It is also moving ahead with the remilitarisation of Taiwan and the attempt to burden Europe with the full cost of the confrontation with Russia in order to concentrate military resources on the struggle with China.

So far Beijing has not deployed actions equivalent to those of its rival. It has strengthened its sovereignty within a limited radius of miles to resist US attempts to internationalise its coastal space. It is shoring up its fisheries, underwater reserves and, above all, the maritime routes it needs to transport its goods.

This defensive reaction is a far cry from Washington’s onslaught in the Pacific Ocean. China has not sent battleships to the coasts of New York or California, and its growing military budget still maintains a significant gap with that of the Pentagon. Beijing prioritises economic exhaustion through a strategy that seeks to “tire out the enemy”. Moreover, it has avoided forming any network of military alliances comparable to NATO.

China does not, therefore, meet the basic conditions of an imperialist power. Its foreign policy differs greatly from such a profile. It does not dispatch troops abroad, maintains only one military base outside its borders (at a key trading crossroads) and does not get involved in foreign conflicts.

The new power has especially avoided the warmongering path followed by Germany and Japan in the 20th century, following guidelines of geopolitical prudence that were inconceivable in the past. It has profited from globalised forms of production that did not exist in the previous century.

China has also avoided the path followed by Russia and has not taken actions similar to those deployed by Moscow in Syria or Ukraine. For this reason, it is not following the imperial path that Russia has hinted at with increasing intensity.

This international moderation does not place China at the opposite pole of the imperial spectrum. The new power is already far removed from the Global South and has entered the universe of the central economies that accumulate profits at the expense of the periphery. It has left behind the spectrum of dependent nations and has positioned itself above the new group of emerging economies.

Chinese capitalists capture surplus value (through the firms they locate abroad) and profit from the supply of raw materials. The country has already achieved the status of creditor economy, in potential conflict with its debtors in the South. It profits from unequal exchange and absorbs surpluses from underdeveloped economies based on a level of productivity far above the average of its customers.

In summary: China has positioned itself within a non-hegemonic bloc that is far removed from the periphery. But it has not completed its capitalist status and has avoided enacting imperialist policies.

Semi-peripheries and sub-imperialism

Another novelty of the current scenario is the presence of important regional players. They exhibit less weight than the major powers, but have displayed sufficient relevance to require some classification within the imperial order. The weight of these players stems from the unexpected rise of intermediate economies that have consolidated their profile through structures of emerging industrialisation.

This irruption has made the old centre-periphery relationship more complex as a result of a double process of value drain from underdeveloped regions and value retention in the rising semi-peripheries. Several members of the Asian pole, India and Turkey exemplify this new condition in a context of growing bifurcation in the traditional universe of dependent countries. This scenario — more tripolar than binary — is gaining relevance in the contemporary international hierarchy.

Internal differentiation in the old periphery is extremely visible across all continents. The great gulf that separates Brazil and Mexico from Haiti and El Salvador in Latin America is reproduced on the same scale in Europe, Asia and Africa. These fractures have significant internal consequences and complement the underlying process of transformation of the old national bourgeoisies into new local bourgeoisies.

A complex variety of geopolitical statuses can be observed in this spectrum of semi-peripheral economies. In some cases, we have the emergence of an empire in gestation (Russia); in others, the traditional dependency persists (Argentina); and, in certain countries, the features of sub-imperialism have emerged.

This last category is not used to identify weaker variants of the imperial status. This lesser role is occupied by several NATO members (such as Belgium or Spain), who fill a simple role of subordination to US command. Nor does sub-empire allude to the current condition of former empires in decline (such as Portugal, Holland or Austria).

As Marini rightly anticipated, contemporary sub-empires operate as regional powers that maintain a contradictory relationship of association, subordination and tension with the US gendarme. This ambiguity coexists with the use of strong military actions in their disputes with regional competitors. Sub-empires operate on a scale far removed from greater world geopolitics, but with regional attacks that recall their ancient roots of long-standing empires.

Turkey is the main exponent of this modality in the Middle East. It displays significant expansionism, exhibits great duality vis-à-vis Washington, resorts to unpredictable moves, promotes external adventures and engages in an intense competitive battle with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Specificities of the 21st century

On the basis of all the above elements we can deduce the features of contemporary imperialism. This system presents unique, novel and divergent modalities compared to its two precedents of the past century.

Today’s imperialism is a system structured around the dominant role exercised by the United States, in close connection with its alter-imperial partners in Europe and co-imperial extensions in other hemispheres.

This structure incorporates military actions to guarantee the transfer of value from the periphery to the centre, and faces a structural crisis after successive failures by the Pentagon that led to the current multipolar configuration.

Outside this dominant radius are two great powers. While China is expanding its economy with cautious external strategies, Russia is acting with the embryonic modalities of a new empire. Other sub-imperial formations of a much smaller scale dispute pre-eminence in regional scenarios through autonomous actions, but are also linked into the NATO framework.

This renewed Marxist interpretation upgrades the concept of imperialism, integrating the notion of hegemony in order to better understand contemporary geopolitics. It highlights the crisis of US leadership without postulating its inexorable decline or the inevitable emergence of a substitute power (China) or of several aligned replacements (BRICS).

This focus on the concept of imperialism also highlights the continued importance of military coercion, recalling that it has not lost its primacy in the face of the growing incidence of economics, diplomacy or ideology.

Classical views

Debates within Marxism include polemics between a renewed approach (which we have put forward) and the classical view. The latter view proposes using the same characterisation postulated by Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century.

It considers that the validity of this approach is not restricted to the period in which it was formulated, but rather extends to the present day. In the same way that Marx laid the lasting foundations for a characterisation of capitalism, Lenin postulated a thesis that has outlived the times in which it was formulated.

This approach objects to the existence of various models of imperialism, adapted to the successive changes of capitalism. It understands that a single scheme is sufficient to understand the dynamics of the past century.

From this characterisation, it draws an analogy between the current scenario and that which prevailed during World War I, arguing that the same inter-imperial conflict has reappeared today. It argues that Russia and China compete with their peers in the West, with policies similar to those deployed a hundred years ago by the powers that challenged the dominant forces.

In this light, it sees current conflicts as a competition for the spoils of the periphery. The war in Ukraine is seen as an example of this clash and the battle between Kyiv and Moscow is explained by an appetite for iron, gas or wheat resources in the disputed territory. All countries involved in this battle are seen as equal and denounced as camps in an inter-imperial struggle.

But this reasoning loses sight of the great differences between the current context and the past. At the beginning of the 20th century, a plurality of powers with comparable military forces clashed to assert their superiority. The stratified supremacy that the United States currently exercises over its NATO partners did not exist. This predominance confirms that powers no longer act as autonomous fighters. The United States directs both Europe and its extensions in other continents.

Moreover, an imperial system is now operating in the face of a certain variety of non-hegemonic alliances, which only demonstrate imperial tendencies in gestation. The dominant nucleus attacks and the formations in construction defend themselves. Unlike in the past century, there is no battle between equally offensive counterparts.

Lenin’s criteria

The classic thesis defines imperialism using guidelines that highlight the predominance of finance capital, monopolies and capital exports. With these parameters, it judges the status of Russia and China positively or negatively by the degree to which they fulfill or depart from those requirements.

Those that answer affirmatively and place Russia in the imperialist camp assess that its economy has expanded significantly, with investments abroad, global corporations and exploitation of the periphery. The same interpretation for China’s case emphasises that the world’s second largest economy already more than satisfies all the requirements of an imperial power.

Opposing evaluations point out that Russia has not yet joined the club of dominators because it lacks the powerful finance capital required for such a rise. They also note that it has few monopolies or outstanding companies in the ranking of international corporations. The same opinion for China’s case points out that the powerful Asian economy has not yet excelled in the export of capital or in the dominance of finance capital.

But these economic classifications drawn from characteristics formulated in 1916 are inadequate for evaluating contemporary imperialism. Lenin only described the features of the capitalism of his time, without using this evaluation to define a map of imperial classification. He thought, for example, that Russia belonged to the club of empires although it did not fulfill all the economic conditions required for such participation. The same was true of Japan, which was not a relevant exporter of capital, nor did it harbour preeminent forms of finance capital.

The current forced application of these requirements leads to countless confusions. There are many countries with powerful finance sectors, overseas investments and large monopolies (such as Switzerland), which do not deploy imperialist policies. In contrast, Russia’s own economy operates as if it was a mere semi-periphery in the global ranking, but it engages in the military actions of an empire in gestation. In turn, China meets all the conditions of the classic economic recipe book to be typified as an imperial giant but does not carry out military actions corresponding to that status.

The place of each power in the world economy does not, therefore, clarify its role as an empire. This role is elucidated by evaluating foreign policy, foreign intervention and geopolitical-military actions on the global chessboard. This approach put forward by a renewed Marxism sheds more light on the characteristics of current imperialism than the viewpoint postulated by those who simply update the classical view.

Transnationalism and global empire

Another alternative Marxist approach was put forward in the past decade by the thesis of global empire. This view achieved great popularity during the rise of the World Social Forums, postulating the actuality of a post-imperialist era that had overcome national capitalism and state intermediation. It featured a novel direct counterposition between dominators and dominated resulting from the dissolution of the old centres, the unrestricted mobility of capital and the extinction of the centre-periphery relationship.

In a framework of great euphoria with free trade and banking deregulation, it also underscored the existence of a ruling class amalgamated and intertwined through the transnationalisation of states. It viewed the United States as the incarnation of a globalised empire that transmits its structures and values to the entire planet.

This view has been belied by the current scenario of intense conflicts between major powers. The drastic clash between the United States and China is inexplicable from a point of view that postulates the dissolution of states and consequent disappearance of geopolitical crises between countries differentiated by their national foundations.

The thesis of global empire, moreover, ignores the limits and contradictions of globalisation, forgetting that capital cannot migrate unrestrictedly from one country to another, nor benefit from a free planetary displacement of labour. A continuous sequence of barriers obstructs the constitution of this homogeneous space at a global level.

This approach extrapolated possible, very long-term scenarios to immediate realities by imagining simple and abrupt globalisations. It diluted economy and geopolitics into a single process and ignored the continued protagonism of states, by imagining transnational entanglements between the main ruling classes. It forgot that the functioning of capitalism is based on the legal and coercive structure provided by the different states.

It was even more misguided to liken the pyramidal structure of the contemporary imperial system led by the United States to a global, horizontal empire devoid of national partners. This ignores that the primary power operates as the protector of the global order, but without dissolving its troops into a multinational army. Because of this accumulation of inconsistencies, the vision of a global empire has lost weight in current debates.


Renewed Marxist theory offers the most consistent characterisation of 21st century imperialism. It underlines the pre-eminence of a coercive military apparatus, headed by the United States and cohered through NATO, to ensure domination of the periphery and harass rival non-hegemonic formations such as Russia and China.

Those powers feature only embryonic or limited imperial modalities and carry out primarily defensive actions. The crisis of the imperial system is the critical fact of a period marked by the United States’ recurrent inability to recover its weakened primacy.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

War in Ukraine: Solidarity with Ukrainian resistance, against all imperialisms

The following statement by the executive bureau of the Fourth International, issued on May 24, three months into the Russian war on Ukraine, offers what I consider the clearest analysis to date of the class and geopolitical issues and principles posed for the Left in this war.             – Richard Fidler

Кампанія Солідарності з Україною – The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign seeks to  organise solidarity and provide information in support of the Ukrainian  labour movement

1. State of the war

– Today, three months have passed since the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s troops. The Russian army has occupied parts of the territory, particularly in the East and South of the country, while suffering a serious defeat in the region of Kyiv.

– Ukrainians have opposed phenomenal and massive resistance, involving armed and non-armed struggle, the army, territorial defence forces, civil society organizations, and new forms of self-organization. They have received arms deliveries, humanitarian aid and intelligence from EU and NATO countries. The first successes of such resistance have radicalized Ukrainian hopes for a defeat of the Russian aggressor. Citizens in occupied regions continue to demonstrate against occupation, there are reports of partisan activities in some areas.

– The soldiers killed on both sides can be counted in tens of thousands, as can Ukrainian civilian victims. The war crimes committed by the Russian forces are multiple and proven, as in Bucha, Irpin and other cities. The siege of the cities by the Russian army has deliberately caused thousands of inhabitants to die of deprivation and starvation, particularly in Mariupol. Twelve million inhabitants have been displaced, five million to other European countries.

– The conflict has caused massive material destruction by indiscriminate bombing of civilian and military areas, some cities have been almost razed to the ground.

– A readjustment of the offensive was decided by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of April, aiming to annex the whole of Donbass and the industrial and port city of Mariupol, as well as the largest possible territory in the south, on the Black Sea. But in these regions also, Ukrainians continue to resist.

2. Our position: Support for the Ukrainian struggle for self-determination and independence against a background of inter-imperialist strife

– Putin’s invasion is a war of aggression, aiming to submit Ukrainian territory to Russian control, as part of the return of a Great Russian imperialist project.

– Ukrainians are fighting a national liberation struggle against the invasion. We support their right to resist, including militarily, and stand in solidarity with their choice to do so. We defend their right to arm themselves and thus to receive the arms necessary to resist against a much more powerful army,

– This war is carried on in the context of a renewed inter-imperialist strife. In this war, Western imperialism – represented by NATO and the EU – has taken sides, and is supporting Ukraine's resistance financially and materially. This has clearly reinforced the resistance and improved its prospects.

– We denounce the obvious aim of US and EU leaders to transform the war according to their own interests: the prospect of a second Afghanistan nightmare for Russia already opens huge opportunities for increased military budgets, the deployment of new military technologies, the expansion of NATO and the improvement of the US world geo-strategic position. They aim to use the battlefield of Ukraine for the realization of their geopolitical goals.

– For now, both imperialist powers, Russia and NATO, have avoided any direct confrontation that could escalate into an inter-imperialist war. No one is interested in such an escalation, but it could be the result of uncontrolled spiralling. Such a scenario of world war is an objective danger in the imperialist phase of capitalism. It would be catastrophic for humanity and the planet, and we oppose any escalation that could transform this war into a direct inter-imperialist confrontation.

– As revolutionaries and internationalists, we affirm that the way out of the logic of inter-imperialist conflict and escalation is the resistance of peoples from below: for self-determination and against foreign invasions. The choice of Ukrainians to resist has blocked the quick annexation that Russia was aiming for. The defeat of the Russian invader at the hands of Ukrainian people would be the best scenario for struggles for self-determination and against imperialisms of all kinds. The reinforcement of the Ukrainian resistance and of anti-war movements in Russia (and Belarus) are two necessary factors for this scenario to be realized.

– Putin’s invasion has provided a huge boost to NATO’s agenda of expansion, with Sweden and Finland requesting their entry. We oppose this dynamic: we reject the logic of military blocs and work for a new trans-European concept of security based on self-determination, egalitarian relations between peoples, including Russia, urgent treaties of denuclearization and the dissolution of NATO and CSTO.[1]

– In the same way, we reject EU treaties and financial institutions and policies, and denounce the way in which they are used to subject countries in Europe’s periphery to neo-colonial relations. The contradictions between the Ukrainian demand for “fast and just” European integration and the reality of the EU’s criteria should help us raise the issue of new treaties for European relations based on cooperation and not market competition, fiscal and social dumping.

– We aim to build a movement from below, for a just and lasting peace, in solidarity with the struggle of Ukrainian and Russian people against Putin’s invasion and NATO strategies, for a just peace and for the self-determination of Ukraine.

– We demand the urgent transfer of military budgets towards the vital needs of an ecosocialist transformation of the world based on social and environmental justice and against all neo-colonial relations.

3. Political trends in Ukraine

– Zelensky and his government are a neoliberal force, tied to sectors of the Ukrainian oligarchy. His unexpected electoral success in 2019 came on the basis of criticism of corruption and hopes for a peaceful settlement of the hybrid war producing more than 15,000 deaths since 2014, and in the context of a deep crisis of all political parties associated with growing social conflicts and activities of civil society.

– The Ukrainian population is united in resisting the Russian invasion by all means. Many socialist and anarchist militants have joined the Territorial Defense forces. As internationalist militants, we support comrades who have made this choice.

– At the same time, Ukrainians are self-organizing to provide support for victims of the war. Popular initiatives have been launched to provide shelters, social housing and childcare for refugees and internally displaced people, to provide free mental and other health care, transport and much else. These initiatives are an experiment in new ways of social organization, which could break with the neoliberal regression of the last 20 years; but they are still confronted with the dominant political and economic regime which protects oligarchs.

– In the current stage of the war, it is Russian-speaking Ukrainians that are suffering the most at the hands of the Russian army. They are massively engaged in the armed and civilian resistance. This debunks any claim by Putin that the “operation” aims to protect national minorities. We support the right of populations to democratic self-determination in the absence of national or foreign coercion.

– The building of a Ukrainian national identity is a dominant political trend, a historically progressive resistance against centuries of Russian domination. This sentiment has also often taken the colour of anti-communism, also due to oppression during the USSR period. This can only be overcome by a radical democratic movement to consolidate a peaceful Ukraine. The popular resistance and victory against Russian national oppression should allow for a collective appropriation of conflicting interpretations of black pages of Ukrainian history by historians and different political currents, dealing with all past oppressions and crimes. But that also needs the consolidation of a post-war Ukraine free of oligarchic capitalism and socially destructive policies.

– It is clear that the context of violence and increased national sentiment provoked by the invasion is favourable to “anti-Russian” and far-right nationalist ideology. At the same time, the massive engagement of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Roma in defence of the country, as well as the direct mobilization of the citizens in armed and unarmed resistance, creates potential for a more progressive resolution of the cultural and linguistic issues that have been exploited by the far right in recent years.

– Many women have volunteered for armed service. As Ukrainian feminists say, they know what kind of future Putin’s regime offers to feminists and LGBT. That is why their first choice is to fight for his defeat.

– In the context of war and bellicism, the gender regime tends to shift to more patriarchal forms, which place women in the field of care and men in the frontline and increases sexist, violent and reactionary behaviours (against women and LGBT). Since 2014, the burden of social reproduction in a deeply neoliberal society has fallen more and more on women as social provision has been stripped away. This is a part of the context for the massive surrogacy industry that has developed in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion the use of rape and sexual violence as war weapons has left women with traumatic after-effects, including unwanted pregnancies, for which they cannot access appropriate care. We support the feminist collectives that are working to help women in all the complex trauma they are facing.

– It is in such a context that the new socialist NGO Sotsialnyi Rukh (“Social Movement”) was established. We support their orientation, which includes their open criticisms of wartime emergency measures and labour law reforms that make it easier to dismiss workers, non-enforcement of labour law, and a corrupt legal system and civil service which enables oligarchs and other capitalists to avoid paying wages and taxes or respecting environmental legislation. They are building a popular resistance against the invader which is rooted in solidarity with workers’ struggles and egalitarian (feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist) relations amongst the people. They are promoting an important campaign for the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt.

– Independent workers’ unions are also a key factor in building resistance as well as an alternative to the bourgeois and neo-liberal project for Ukraine.

– The links of these progressive forces (in particular trade unions and feminists) with the anti-war movement in Russia and Belarus will be essential to open progressive alternatives to the dominant inter-imperialist conflicts and settlements.

4. The political climate in Russia and the antiwar movement

– The reactivation of Great Russian imperialism has also political consequences within the Russian state. Putin is also taking advantage of his Orwellian “special operation” to further stifle Russian society. His policy is as much aggressively ideological (Great Russian nationalist and “anti-Nazi”) as it is systematically repressive. He wants to put an end to any internal opposition in the long term.

– Education and media have been reformed to promote authoritarian, imperialist values and suppress dissent. Independent labour unions and activist networks, LGBT and environmental activists all face increased repression.

– These regressive tendencies are shifting Russia’s regime into neofascism,[2] in which formal democratic procedures are gradually suppressed.

– Despite this, some sectors of Russian society have shown great courage in opposing Putin’s war. In the initial days of the war, spontaneous demonstrations gathered in many Russian cities to oppose the invasion. These were severely repressed. Individuals continue to protest, and have been fined, imprisoned, and intimidated in their places of work and study.

– Some soldiers are refusing to take part in this so-called “special operation,” and desertion and breaks in discipline afflict the Russian army. Most soldiers serving and dying in Ukraine come from Russia’s ethnic minorities, who have fewer employment opportunities, and are less able to avoid military service.

– Today, the small feminist movement is playing a key role in denouncing the invasion and standing in solidarity with Ukraine, contributing to the coordination of initiatives nation-wide.

– The movement of mothers of soldiers is also an important factor, giving voice to those critical of Putin’s war and propaganda.

– In the meanwhile, sabotage actions, not clearly attributed, are also making it difficult for the Russian state and showing there is more opposition to the war than what is expressed publicly.

– There has also been impressive sabotage of Russian logistics in Belarus. The Minsk regime has reclassified such sabotage as terrorism, carrying the death penalty. Belarus activists are also supporting Russian deserters and demonstrating against Belarus collaboration or future participation in the Russian invasion. Independent trade unions, which have been leading anti-war protests, have been severely repressed, and their ability to function is in question.

– The socialist and revolutionary left in Russia, and in particular the Russian Socialist Movement, have an important role to play, building a militant opposition to the Putin regime, building solidarity links with Ukrainian militants and around the world. They face increasing repression and have to work in a semi-clandestine fashion.

– Some socialists, feminists and other activists have had to leave the country but continue to work from exile to build a radical alternative in Russia. We are committed to supporting them.

5. Our tasks outside Ukraine and Russia

– As radical left forces, we express and organize our support for Ukrainian armed and unarmed resistance while staying independent from and critical of our governments and their imperialist program and motivations. We do not stand in the way of any initiative that helps to reinforce the autonomous resistance of the Ukrainian people.

– We participate in mobilizations in solidarity with Ukrainians and against Putin’s invasion, trying to connect with Ukrainian refugees and people outraged by the aggression, bringing our slogans and ideas against all imperialisms, for socialism and self-determination.

– We support and build initiatives from below that bring material and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

– We denounce policies that aim to take advantage of Ukraine’s war to further the interests of Western imperialism. We oppose all conditionalities imposed by Western governments in order to make profits and subordinate Ukraine to their economic and military sphere of influence.

– We oppose the rise of military expenditure, part of an agenda of increased militarism that precedes Putin’s invasion. We stand against NATO and CSTO, for their dissolution, for each country to leave these alliances and we resolutely oppose their expansion.

– We express and organize our solidarity with refugees from Ukraine, calling for the end of all discriminations and a policy of open borders for migrants and refugees of all origins. The forced exile of the Ukrainians has been met with a great deal of popular, self-organized solidarity in the neighbouring countries, in particular Poland. The current EU’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees should be adopted as the standard practice for all new asylum seekers.

– We support direct actions taken against Russian oligarchs. They are protected by the opacity and unfairness of the global financial system, bank secrecy and institutionalized capital flight and tax evasion, of which all oligarchies take advantage, including the Ukrainian. We do not support long term sanctions aimed to “bleed” or “weaken” Russia, which result in increased poverty within the Russian population.

– We combat any Russophobia, which conflates Russia’s people or culture with the actions of its government.

– We point out the contradiction between the support for Ukrainian struggle by Western governments and their complicity with Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish people and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and all other oppressed nations across the world.

6. Our main slogans and demands

– For the defeat of the Russian invasion. Russian troops out of Ukraine.

– Support for Ukrainian resistance, in all its forms.

– For the immediate cancellation of Ukrainian debt.

– Down with Putin! Support the Russian antiwar movement. Solidarity and refugee status for all deserters from the Russian army.

– Against NATO and the Russian-led CSTO expansionism and interventionism. Against all imperialist blocs.

– Solidarity with Ukrainian refugees of all origins, and provision of the practical short- and longer-term aid necessary, taking into account the fact that the vast majority are women and children.

– For a transition to renewable energies to put an end to dependencies and blackmail from oil and gas producers. Transfer of military budgets to investment into a quick decarbonization of the economy under popular control.

– For a socialist Europe free of military blocs and all neo-colonial relations. For an ecosocialist revolutionary alternative to capitalist exploitation and the destruction of life on our planet.

[1] Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of some post-Soviet states led by Russia.

[2] “Neofascism” is a debatable characterization, in my view, and extraneous to identifying Russia’s increasingly authoritarian character. -- RF

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Internationalist Manifesto Against the War in Ukraine

Anticapitalist Organisations of Russia, Ukraine, and NATO Countries

April 12, 2022


The criminal war launched by Russian imperialism against Ukraine is the most serious threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War. It brings the world closer to a global conflagration than at any time since Mikhail Gorbachev’s peace initiatives.

The main culprit for this dangerous evolution is US imperialism, which took advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union in order to consolidate its global military network, expand its presence in various parts of the world and launch invasion wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington fostered in Russia and Eastern Europe the adoption of a brutal neoliberal program that created conditions for a far-right drift in most of these countries, especially Russia where it supported Boris Yeltsin’s antidemocratic coup in 1993.

To stress this historical responsibility of the Cold War’s victor does not in the least exonerate the far-right government of Vladimir Putin of its Great-Russian expansionist ambitions, its own militaristic drive and increased global reactionary interventionism and, above all, its murderous invasion of Ukraine, the most brutal invasion of one country by another since the US invasion of Iraq.

In addition to the terrible devastation and death that it brought to Ukraine, the Russian invasion has boosted the global militaristic drive and reinvigorated NATO after years of obsolescence. It is being seized as an opportunity for a sharp rise in military expenditure benefitting military-industrial complexes. This comes at a time when NATO governments themselves keep stressing that Russia’s force has been very much overrated, as proven by the heroic Ukrainian resistance, and when U.S. military expenditure alone is close to 40% of the global total, three times that of China and more than twelve times that of Russia.

As anticapitalist forces, we are as much in solidarity with the Ukrainian people’s resistance as we are radically opposed to this global militaristic drive. We therefore stand indivisibly for the following demands:

· Immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine

· Support for the Ukrainian resistance and its right to get the weapons it needs for its defence from whatever source available

· Support for the Russian antiwar movement

· Russia should be forced to pay reparations for what it has inflicted on Ukraine

· No to any increases in military expenditure—we pledge to launch, as soon as this war ends, a new campaign for global disarmament, the dissolution of all imperialist military alliances and an alternative architecture of international security based on the rule of law.

· Open doors in all countries to all refugees fleeing wars in any part of the world

Signatories (by 11 April 2022):

Social Movement (Sotsialny Rukh) – Ukraine

Black Flag – Ukraine

Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) – Russia

Liberation Road – USA

Solidarity – USA

The Tempest Collective – USA

International Marxist-Humanist Organization – USA

Green Party of Onondaga County (New York) – USA

SAP – Antikapitalisten / Gauche anticapitaliste – Belgium

Midnight Sun – Canadian State

Anti-Capitalist Resistance – England & Wales

Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) – France

Fondation Frantz Fanon – France, Martinique

Elaliberta – Greece

Rproject-anticapitalista – Italy

SAP – Grenzeloos – Netherlands

International Marxist-Humanist Organization – UK

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Forty years ago: How Canada’s Indigenous Peoples rallied for constitutional recognition

It is now 40 years since the Trudeau Sr. government “patriated” Canada’s constitution, ending Britain’s vestigial control over changes in the country’s founding document, the British North America Act.

Much of the critical analysis at the time focused on how the 1982 Constitution Act marginalized Quebec’s status within the federation through explicit limitations on French-language rights in Quebec, denial of Quebec recognition as a distinct nation, and an amending formula that omitted a Quebec veto, etc. Above all, through the adoption of a “Charter of Rights” that recognized individual rights but failed to recognize the collective rights that would acknowledge the country’s plurinational reality. A valuable critique of what was involved in the “patriation” process and its result is contained in the late Michael Mandel’s book, The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada.

Also marginalized in the new constitution were the Indigenous Peoples, despite a massive mobilization by their communities, in Canada and abroad, for recognition of their sovereign rights as First Nations. All they got, in the end, was a section of the constitution that formally recognized their “existing aboriginal and treaty rights” – it being left to the courts to define what that meant – and a promise of subsequent constitutional talks in which Ottawa and the provinces would determine “the identification and definition of the rights of those peoples.” Three such conferences in later years ended in failure, and there is still no constitutional recognition of the sovereign status and rights of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

A groundbreaking study of how and why the Indigenous Peoples mobilized in the early 1980s has been published in the current issue of BC Studies, the British Columbia Quarterly. Edited by Emma Feltes and Glen Coulthard, it is a retrospective account of the Constitution Express, the massive effort mounted by Indigenous leaders in the western provinces to fight Trudeau’s attempt to exclude from the new constitution any mention of their rights, treaties or the Crown’s obligation to them. cover_issue_183063_en_US

Emma Feltes is a legal and political anthropologist, writer, and organizer, now at Columbia University. Glen Coulthard is an associate professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia; among his works is an important Marxist study Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.

Published below are extensive excerpts from the introductory essay by the editors of this volume. (The full text is online.) Readers are strongly urged to purchase their own copies of this issue of BC Studies.

* * *

Introduction, The Constitution Express Revisited (excerpts)

By Emma Feltes and Glen Coulthard

“Today at long last, Canada is acquiring full and complete national sovereignty,” began Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at the rainy ceremony marking the end of patriation on 17 April 1982 – exactly forty years ago this spring. He continued:

“We became an independent country for all practical purposes in 1931, with the passage of the Statute of Westminster. But by our own choice, because of our inability to agree upon an amending formula at that time, we told the British Parliament that we were not ready to break this last colonial link.”

On that day, he, along with Queen Elizabeth II and Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien, sat down at a desk set up on Parliament Hill to sign the proclamation that would bring the Constitution Act, 1982, into effect, formally transferring the Constitution from the United Kingdom to Canada. […]

For Trudeau, a personal ambition had been fulfilled. The Constitution belonged to Canada now.

Among Indigenous Peoples, however, the mood was a little different. The National Indian Brotherhood declared 17 April a day of mourning. In British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun quoted then Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) President Robert (Bobby) Manuel as saying that anyone who participated in the celebration of patriation would be committing a “treasonous act against the Indian nations and their citizens.” All the way along, Indigenous Peoples from across the province had been fighting to stop patriation from happening without Indigenous consent. As Herman Thomas wrote in an editorial for UBCIC’s newspaper, Indian World:

“The fight has been a long tedious one and shall not end here, the Indian people are presently planning how to further continue the fight not only nationally but internationally. Indian people have found no reason to celebrate patriation; in fact Indians are demonstrating across Canada stating that the Constitution is unconstitutional. If Canada’s version of democracy means stripping Indian people of their pride, dignity and depriving them of self-determination and self-government, then I shall not stand for thee O Canada, but continue to fight for democracy and freedom as we see it.”

The “fight” to which he was referring had begun in earnest about eighteen months earlier (though the seeds were laid long before), when UBCIC declared Canada’s plans to patriate the Constitution to be a “state of emergency” for Indigenous Peoples. Within five short weeks from this declaration, UBCIC would charter two full passenger trains from Vancouver to Ottawa, determined to derail patriation until it gained Indigenous consent. Thus launched a movement that would come to be known as the Constitution Express.

When Trudeau began pushing for patriation in the late 1970s, he touted it as a decolonial move – one that promised to rid Canada of any “residual colonialism.” Yet, at the same time, his 1978 proposal, “A Time for Action,” excluded any mention of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, treaties, or the Crown’s obligations to them. Meanwhile, his process for achieving patriation was equally exclusionary, relegating Indigenous Peoples to observer status. “Patriation,” a made-up word, perfectly captured this revisionist appropriation of decolonial sentiment – a bringing home of something that had never been here in the first place, while absolving Canada of any responsibility to the peoples whose lands and authority it had dispossessed. In addition, Trudeau promised to add a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the package – one whose liberal equality provisions, many worried, would have a kind of levelling effect, achieving the goals of the 1969 White Paper by effectively wiping away Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights and status. It was a tactic Canada had deployed repeatedly in the postwar period, weaponizing “equality” against Indigenous nationhood.

So, Indigenous Peoples across the country mobilized to stop this from happening. The Constitution Express, a movement led predominantly (though not exclusively) by Indigenous people from British Columbia, was a massive grassroots expression of this mobilization.

The train ride itself, from which the movement got its name, was a mammoth operation. Though initiated by then UBCIC President Grand Chief George Manuel, and coordinated by UBCIC, it was powered by community. For example, Tk’emlúpsemc historian Sarah A. Nickel writes in this issue about the incredible feats of fundraising – led mostly by women – that were performed to pull it off, as every community across the province was asked to support at least one representative to go on the journey (some, however, sent dozens). By the time of the trains’ departure from Vancouver Pacific Central Station on 24 November 1980, their passengers included Elders, community leaders, women, and children (lots of them, as they travelled for free). Further, the advantage of having two train routes meant that it would be easier for passengers from northern, and not just southern, communities to join in the ride. When the northern train stopped in such places as Clearwater, Vavenby, Avola, and Jasper, it gathered travellers from as far as Williams Lake, Bella Coola, and Kitimat before carrying on through Edmonton and Saskatoon. Meanwhile, the southern train stopped in Salmon Arm, Sicamous, Revelstoke, Golden, Banff, Calgary, and Regina. As they travelled, the movement’s spokespeople and UBCIC staff held roving workshops in each train car, discussing and honing their aims. In these meetings Elders began to bring forward oral history, deepening the discussion of their nationhood and law. The trains conjoined in Winnipeg, where, after a raucous night of rallying hosted by the Four Nations Confederacy of Manitoba, they carried on to the capital. Upon their arrival, they immediately delivered a petition to Governor General Ed Schreyer before joining the All Chiefs Meeting on the Constitution being hosted by the National Indian Brotherhood.

The message of the Constitution Express was clear: patriation could only proceed with Indigenous consent. To get to consent, the movement proposed an internationally supervised trilateral conference, at which Indigenous Peoples, Canada, and the United Kingdom would sit down together to work out their respective realms of authority, “define the terms for political existence” between them, and create the “conditions necessary to enable the Indian Nations of Canada to achieve self-determination within the Canadian Federation.” It was a proposal that would shake up the patriation process fundamentally, while remodelling the very Constitution being patriated. If Canada was unwilling to partake, they promised to seek other remedies:

“As the last recourse, we propose to take whatever other measures are necessary to separate Indian Nations permanently from the jurisdiction and control of the Government of Canada, if its intentions remain hostile to our peoples, while insisting the fulfillment of the obligations owed to us by Her Majesty the Queen.”

Predictably, Canada declined the invitation.

Over the next eighteen months, what began as a train ride grew to be a broad political movement with both local and international inflections. In fact, as this issue of BC Studies demonstrates, these facets were entirely intertwined. Court cases were launched in both Canadian and British courts. A smaller delegation went on from Ottawa to New York, where the movement’s proposals were put before the United Nations. A submission was made before the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. A series of at least eight “Constitution Express Potlaches” was held in communities across British Columbia. And a second journey, dubbed the “Constitution Express II,” was made through Western Europe, where it initiated a massive popular education campaign on Indigenous self-determination in the heartland of former empires. Finally, the movement ended up in London, joining a major Indigenous political and legal lobby already under way.

By the time the Canada Bill came before British Parliament, Indigenous Peoples’ concerns dominated the debate, with new clauses being proposed by British MPs that reflected the kind of consent and self-government for which they had been lobbying. But ultimately, when the bill finally passed, what they got was section 35, a concession by the Canadian government that “recognized and affirmed” the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” What this section meant, and what it would do for Indigenous Peoples, was shrouded in mystery, yet to be defined.

Over the four decades since, the mystery of section 35 has taken on a kind of life of its own, evolving incrementally in law and policy in Canada (an evolution Kent McNeil expounds beautifully in his contribution to this issue). Yet the movements that brought it about – and that aimed for much more – seem to have receded from view, at least in scholarship, where they’ve received stunningly little academic attention.

The thinking behind this special issue on the Constitution Express was to create a kind of retrospective of the movement, and one that would look at two things simultaneously: what the movement did then and its significance now, forty years on. To achieve this, we set out to bring Indigenous scholars and community organizers who were directly involved in the movement together with other prominent and emerging scholars who might bring a unique perspective to it. In the end, through a combination of five academic articles and two personal reflection pieces, both of which foreground the voices of those who were there, we came away with a powerful collection – one that moves through the movement’s varied aims, the methods and theories it deployed to achieve them, and its resonant effect today, including its political, legal, intellectual, and inter-generational legacy. […]

Indigenous Internationalism and the BC Land Question

One of the things so keenly interesting about the Constitution Express – and something this issue tries explicitly to represent – was its interplay between national and international action. It was a movement grounded in the resurgence of Indigenous legal and political authority in Indigenous lands. It was a movement committed to upholding the kinds of international relationships, particularly jurisdictional relationships, that Indigenous Peoples had historically sought to establish with colonial polities through treaty and other political arrangements. And it was also a movement informed by anticolonial thought exchanged between the postcolonial “Third” and Indigenous “Fourth” Worlds on what decolonization – and constitution making – might look like. In this, it built upon a resurgent Indigenous internationalism that had been accelerating throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in which Secwépemc leader George Manuel was at the forefront. But Indigenous nations in what is now known as British Columbia have a rich history of international activism and diplomacy stretching back much longer than this. While it is beyond the scope of this introduction to delve into this history of Indigenous internationalism in detail, we felt it might be useful to hit on few of its touchpoints, grounding the movement in what came before it as a way to provide context for and intellectual continuity with the articles to come.

It is important to note that one of the core determinants of this activism was always the refusal of the BC government to satisfactorily resolve the “Indian land question” in the province. Unlike many other regions in Canada, very few historic treaties were signed between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown in British Columbia (save the Douglas Treaties on Vancouver Island and Treaty 8 in the northeastern corner of the province). From the perspective of the federal government, the purpose of signing historic treaties with Indigenous nations was to secure state sovereignty over what were previously the self-governed territories of Indigenous nations through a process called “extinguishment” – thought to be the most expedient way to eliminate Indigenous Land Title for the twin purposes of colonial settlement and capitalist development on Indigenous land. In most of British Columbia and many places across northern Canada, these mechanisms of legalized land theft were not historically implemented, thus leaving a black hole of legal and economic uncertainty over the unceded territories in question. Who owns the land in such circumstances? What are the rules that guide settlement and economic development in these places? Developers tend to like answers to these questions before they invest too heavily in infrastructure and extraction projects, especially in liberal democracies like Canada, so that Indigenous communities have no legal recourse when they disrupt profit margins by blocking flows of resource capital haemorrhaging from their traditional territories.

Treaties, of course, hold a radically different meaning for Indigenous Peoples – even for those communities that never entered into negotiations over them, such as many of those involved in the Constitution Express. Generally speaking, most of the historical treaties signed between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown describe exchanges whereby Indigenous Peoples agree to share some of their lands in exchange for payments and promises made by officials representing the Crown. They are often understood as sacred commitments to maintain a relationship of reciprocity that respects the way of life and relative autonomy of each partner over time, while sharing certain obligations to each other and to the land. As such, treaties are agreements that affirm Indigenous Rights and Title, not extinguish them. Seen in this light, treaties provide an international framework for ensuring “nation-to-nation” relations with Canada, and Indigenous Peoples have defended them as such. It seems to be this understanding that the movement deployed, for example, when it called for treaty, to “fulfill covenants and commitments made.”

Without an acceptable mechanism in place to secure their Rights and Title, the default position of Indigenous Peoples in the province and across Canada has been that the land remains theirs and, as such, still falls under their sovereign jurisdiction. Over the last century and a half, Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia have defended this stance, legally and politically, through numerous venues, including the sending of formal petitions and/or delegations to Victoria, Ottawa, and London to defend their case. […]

Though in each case they were turned away – with the British Crown insisting that their concerns regarding land title were a strictly domestic affair – these delegations demonstrate the persistence of Indigenous political organizing over the last century and also hint at the international character of such efforts. However, the federal government would soon make sure that these types of claims against the state would not happen without punitive consequence. To this end, in 1927, the government made it illegal, via amendments to its already racist and sexist Indian Act, 1876, to formally organize for political purposes or to solicit legal representation (or raise money to do so) to pursue claims against the state, thus undermining to a significant degree the foundation of Indigenous organizing during this period.

While the 1927 amendment to the Indian Act outlawing Indigenous legal and political activism had the expected consequence of significantly curtailing this work – it effectively destroyed the Allied Tribes of British Columbia, for instance – it did not stamp it out entirely. Indigenous Peoples continued to press their concerns through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, although often concealed or under different guises, via organizations like the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia (a First Nations fishing organization established in 1931), the Nisga’a Land Committee (which managed to carry on with its work in a truncated manner), and a variety of BC Native women’s “Homemaker Clubs” (which would eventually amalgamate in the formation of the British Columbia Indian Homemakers Society and the BC Native Women’s Society in 1968). In terms of the latter organizations, Indigenous women were able to effectively use openly patriarchal assumptions of the day regarding the domestic and apolitical nature of women’s labour in the home to discuss, formulate, and pursue their individual and collective political interests under the radar of an increasingly repressive settler-state surveillance apparatus. This latter point is beautifully expounded upon in Sarah Nickel’s contribution to this special issue.

For similar reasons, the politics of Indigenous labour organizing in early-twentieth-century British Columbia is also worth briefly noting here. As the work of labour historian Andy Parnaby demonstrates, this history has a long lineage of Native radicalism, especially on the shores of Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, where Squamish longshore workers not only dominated lumber-related work on the docks but were also “pioneers of industrial unionism.” Essentially, the seasonal wage labour offered by “working the lumber” on the waterfront served as a temporary buffer for the Squamish as two distinct and asymmetrical modes of production were starting to come into violent conflict with each other: industrial capitalism, on the one hand, and the subsistence economy of the Squamish/Coast Salish, on the other. “Squamish men and women were important, if unequal, actors in this new industrial context,” writes Parnaby. “That all the occupational pursuits undertaken by Aboriginal workers were seasonal is important,” he continues, as it “hint[s] at the ways in which the temporal and spatial rhythms of a customary, kin-ordered way of life articulated with the logic of a burgeoning capitalist labour market.” At a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to organize as Indigenous people, doing so as workers allowed Squamish men and women to selectively deploy their labour power through the seasonal wage to protect that which was most important to them: access to a life on the land and waters determined by customary law and tradition, not to a life dictated solely by the demands of colonial capital.

Protecting the fragile articulation of these modes of production by defending seasonal wage work became the focus of early Indigenous union activity on the coast. By our estimation, the most fascinating union to do so at the time was Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), established in 1906 by primarily Squamish and Tsleil-Watuth log handlers. The local, formed a year after the Wobblies formed in Chicago in 1905, became known fondly by its approximately fifty to sixty Indigenous members as the “Bows and Arrows” chapter. As far as defending the type of people and labour in question, the IWW was a natural choice, given its progressive racial politics for the time as well as its reputation for serving “workers who did not fit well into the established craft union structures: the unskilled, the migratory, and the marginal.” While the local only lasted for two years, many of the Squamish workers involved in the Bows and Arrows went on to form the – again, largely Indigenous – Local 38-57 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). ILA 38-57, it turned out, would emerge as a launching pad for the next generation of Indigenous Rights advocates in the province, of which the most prominent was Squamish Chief Andrew (Andy) Paull.

Paull emerged out of his union days as a tireless Native Rights activist, fighting for the betterment of Indigenous people, land, and communities in British Columbia, Canada, and the United States through organizations like the previously mentioned Allied Tribes of British Columbia (he was a founding member) and then, after the latter’s demise, the North American Indian Brotherhood (NIAB), which he co-founded in 1944. During his tenure as president of the NIAB, Paull would serve as a friend and mentor to George Manuel, another emerging Indigenous political force in the province. Manuel would take over the presidency of the NAIB following the death of his mentor in 1959 and serve in this capacity until 1963, after which he moved on to serve in numerous other critically important provincial, national, and international political organizations, including as Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood between 1971 and 1976 (now the Assembly of First Nations), the founder and chair of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) from 1975 to 1981, and as president of UBCIC between 1979 and 1981, during which time he led the Constitution Express.

Manuel’s foundational 1974 book, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality (cowritten with Michael Posluns), details his life of Indigenous activism and leadership during this period. Republished in 2019 for the first time since 1974, The Fourth World is unquestionably one the core texts in the wave of Native literature that emerged out of the tumultuous politics of the global 1960s and 1970s. The text lays out the political and cultural foundation of Indigenous resistance to colonial domination over the last four centuries. He argues that colonization set in motion a Manichean struggle between the colonizer and Indigenous Peoples propelled by two fundamentally incommensurable “ideas of land”: land as a commodity – as something that can be “speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another” – and land as a relationship, “The land as our Mother Earth.” Indigenous Peoples’ struggle to defend the latter against the violent globalization of the former is at its core the struggle of what Manuel calls the “Fourth World.” […]

Manuel’s international travels would eventually culminate in the historic October 1975 founding of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Port Alberni, British Columbia, which hosted Indigenous participants from nineteen different countries across four continents. The WCIP would go on to champion the Rights of Indigenous Peoples across the planet, with its advocacy work being instrumental to the eventual development of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Meanwhile, through the very same period Indigenous nations in British Columbia were fighting for their Title and self-determination at the local and regional levels. Though in 1951 the federal government repealed many of the most repressive legislative features of the Indian Act, decriminalizing Native People’s legal advocacy and political work, by 1969 it would launch another major assimilative offensive in the form of the White Paper. But instead of serving as a mechanism for accelerated assimilation and land theft, as intended, the failed 1969 White Paper helped to spawn a renewed national unity among Indigenous Peoples from coast to coast to coast. […]

While the 1970s were a hotbed for political action, influenced, of course, by Red Power and the American Indian Movement (AIM), the resurgence of jurisdiction at the community level in British Columbia is a lesser-known part of the story. For example, there was a string of road-blocks in the summer of 1975, including the six-week St’uxwtews blockade in Cache Creek, armed and backed by AIM. Fishing then became a “lightning rod,” spurring more blockades as well as an astounding legal winning streak as UBCIC lawyer Louise Mandell won sixty-four fishing rights cases in 1977 alone. But, as George Manuel reflected, “the real signs of the renaissance” could also be seen “in the resurgence of our languages, in the growth of political institutions both old and new … in the growing number of young people seeking out the wisdom of the grandfathers and finding ways to apply it in their own lives.” Against this backdrop, Trudeau initiated the patriation process, thus beginning his “constitutional offensive” against Indigenous Peoples.

This is all to say that, by the time of the Constitution Express, Indigenous people in British Columbia had already established themselves as skilled organizers, having defended their land and sovereignty in both national and international forums for decades. As Louise Mandell would later write for Socialist Studies, by the time the movement landed in London, and submitted a reference to the Privy Council, it “continued a process for the BC Chiefs which had begun in 1906,” referring, of course, to those early delegations. Indeed, it was this long history of expansive pan-Indigenous activism in British Columbia and beyond that ultimately contributed to the power and momentum of the movement, felt strongly across the set of articles and reflections contained here. What this collection shows is that, more than solely a movement for domestic constitutional recognition, it was also a movement for Fourth World self-determination and decolonization. By the same token, it might be said that the creation of section 35 was not entirely successful in domesticating its aims. The BC “land question” is still very much an active one – and one that Constitution Express participants, and the next generation of Indigenous activists, have continued to pursue from the local to the international level.

Outline of the special issue

With all of these preliminary remarks made, we now provide a breakdown of the structure and contributions to this special issue. Here we draw together five academic articles with two firsthand reflections, both of which feature the voices of those directly involved in the movement. The articles and reflections are more thematic than chronological, approaching the story of the movement from different angles and perspectives: its gendered dynamics, its internationalism, its legal arguments and implications, and so on. Some look at one facet of the movement. For example, the article by Emma Feltes and Sharon Venne homes in on its submissions to the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas, while others, like those by Kent McNeil and Louise Mandell, take a more retrospective look at developments within policy, law, and political organizing. Meanwhile, the personal reflections link these together, providing small yet powerful vignettes inviting readers to imagine what it was like to be there and to be in on the action.

We begin with a powerful reflection by Mildred Poplar, a Vuntut Gwitchin Elder and central protagonist of the Constitution Express. Recounting her experience of the Express as one if its main organizers, she drives home not only the profound feeling of accomplishment – organizing, as they did, at breakneck speed – but also the stakes involved: this was a struggle for nationhood and self-determination, not for the inclusion of a truncated set of rights in a colonially imposed constitution. The history that Poplar retells also sheds important light on the character of the labour that went into the material and intellectual life of the movement, most notably that of Indigenous women.

The question of whose labour was central, yet too often buried or overlooked, is taken up explicitly in the contribution by Tk’emlúpsemc historian Sarah A. Nickel. Although Indigenous women were deeply committed to the struggle represented by the Constitution Express, their work also departed from its efforts through the creation of the Concerned Aboriginal Women splinter group (or CAW). According to Nickel, the “CAW used its own brand of grassroots and kinship-based activism to critique not only the relentless barrage of colonial violence Indigenous Peoples faced daily but also, at times, the patriarchal underpinnings and practices of Indigenous leadership and the settler state.” Nickel’s piece is crucial to understanding the gendered dynamics of settler-colonial violence and dispossession, which place Indigenous women on a necessarily dual-track struggle: that against the externally created structure of colonial rule and that against the nefarious ways in which the character of this structure can and has influenced Indigenous communities.

The next two articles and one reflection move from Canada into the various international venues, where the movement carried on its fight against patriation. First, a co-authored article by legal anthropologist Emma Feltes and Cree legal expert Sharon Venne (masko nohcikwesiw manitokan) delves into UBCIC’s submission to the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas. Venne, a young articling student at the time of the Constitution Express, presented this submission at the tribunal, having produced the novel legal analysis upon which it relied. Recontextualizing the British Crown’s historic legal obligation to obtain and uphold Indigenous consent within international and Indigenous law, Venne argued before the tribunal that Indigenous Peoples should have access to the United Nations’ decolonization mechanisms – mechanisms normally held out to overseas or “Third World” colonies alone. Featuring Venne’s voice in a dynamic and layered analysis that transpires between the two authors, the article looks back at the Constitution Express’s deeply decolonial aspirations and, in particular, at the influence of Third World anti-colonialism on the movement.

Rudolph Rÿser’s article does an excellent job of unpacking the longer historical arch within which the Constitution Express formed, from the perspective of a key strategist in the movement. Here we see the patriation process as merely one attempt among three centuries of attempts at Indigenous dispossession and genocide. It then follows closely the movement’s multi-pronged political strategy directed simultaneously at the Government of Canada, the governor general, and the Queen, before picking up where Feltes and Venne left off: at the United Nations. Here the article elaborates on the movement’s diplomatic actions at the UN, drawing the under-secretary general for political affairs, trusteeship and decolonization; the under-secretary general for human rights; and twelve UN member state missions “into the political confrontation.” Ultimately, Rÿser’s piece offers a novel firsthand account of the movement’s local and international politics.

The reflection to follow, by Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams, also speaks of local and international politics. But it speaks intimately, as the story of “establishing the protest and assertion of Indigenous Rights in one community”: Mount Currie of the Lil’wat/St’at’yem’c Nation. Having sent a great number of people on both the original Constitution Express to Ottawa, and the second Constitution Express to Europe, Mount Currie was a hub of action, and Williams weaves beautifully between these international and community-based contexts as she remembers the movement with the help of other family and community members. With a feeling of being almost transported back to 1981, recollections about the importance of ceremony and song, about the teaching and learning that took place, and about relationships forged with media and other allies in Europe unfold.

The next two articles move the issue from its more historical and retrospective points of view up to the present moment. First, Kent McNeil’s article leads the reader through four decades of jurisprudence, asking, point-blank, from the legal perspective: “Has constitutionalizing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights made a difference?” With his trademark clarity and in succinct prose, McNeil compares Indigenous Peoples’ pre-section 35 treatment in the eyes of the law to post-1982 developments and the presumed “gains” since. McNeil casts his careful eye over almost the entire body of Aboriginal law in Canada, reflecting on what it does and doesn’t do for Indigenous Rights, Title, and Treaties. The result is one of the most lucid and methodical narratives of this body of law we have seen to date, concluding with some thoughts about the confounding contradiction between a rights clause that clearly falls short of what the Constitution Express lobbied for yet, at the same time, is an undeniable victory against unilateral extinguishment.

Finally, the issue comes to a close with an article by Louise Mandell, an in-house lawyer for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs at the time of the Constitution Express, and one of the movement’s key legal strategists. This piece draws on a previous chapter, written by Mandell alongside Mandell’s long-time legal partner, Leslie Pinder, another of the movement’s original legal team, who sadly died this spring. In her updated contribution here, Mandell delves deeply into her memories of the movement – from navigating the British legal and political system for the first time, and the intricacies of Imperial legal history, to her simultaneous introduction to Indigenous law over the course of the movement. But this article does more than detail these intersections of law: it is a profoundly personal story too, and one that moves back and forth to the present day. Mandell finds threads of hope in and among her many experiences in the field since – something that speaks both subtly and directly to the movement’s achievements and ongoing relevance.