Critique of 21st century imperialism and the growth of ecological Marxism: a view from China

We publish this extract as part of our ongoing series on Ecological Marxism, Chinese Marxism and Eco-Socialism

The following is from an article written by two Chinese Marxist academics, Professor Cheng Enfu and Dr Fu Hao, which reviews the positive role by the US magazine Monthly Review in contributing to Marxist political analysis in the 21st Century. A key element of this contribution has been the critique of imperialism and the development theories of Marxist ecological socialism in the West.

Chen and Fu argue that “the innovation carried out by Monthly Review  in these areas has helped create a huge new academic space for the development of Marxist political science, an achievement that deserves the applause and respect of the entire global left, as well as careful study.”

Cheng Enfu is a principal professor at the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He is also president of the World Association for Political Economy. Fu Hao is a post-doctoral fellow at the Academy of Marxism of the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“In this rapidly changing global situation, Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently emphasized the importance of reviving the role of Marxian political economy in China and the rejection of the neo-liberal extremes of neoclassical economics in conjunction with the reassertion of the importance of state property and rural revitalization within the overall economy.

All the signs are that China is seeking to defend the strategic non-capitalist elements of its system as a response to the growing hostility of imperial capital at the center of the world economy. China’s answer to COVID-19, employing the model of “people’s revolutionary war” as a way of encouraging
the self-organization of the population in its localities, has been a resounding
success, pointing to the internal solidity of the polity and the potential
revolutionary protagonism of its people.

Source: Monthly Review, 21 Sept 2021.


The Barbarity of Imperialism (2000–07)

The years from 2000 to 2007 were a time of arrogance and barbarity for imperialism. In the articles and comments on imperialism appearing in Monthly Review during the period leading up to the financial crisis, the theme of barbarism figured prominently. Monthly Review has declaimed against the new imperialist hegemony generated by capitalist globalization, urging the left to stay alert to the dangers of global neoliberal militarism in the new era. Samir Amin, in an article for Monthly Review, concludes that imperialism is an inevitable requirement of capitalist global expansion, and that globalization is unavoidable under capitalism. At its third historical stage, Amin argues, imperialism controls the world market through the mechanisms of financial capital, plunders the resources of the planet, commands the leading voices of ideology, and maintains its hegemony with military force, thus revealing the nature of imperialist authoritarianism.9 MR editors compare the Iraq War to the Vietnam War, criticizing the right-wing conservative militarism that, together with imperialism, trapped the U.S. army in Iraq, in what Noam Chomsky calls an “imminent crisis.”10

The magazine has also pointed out that imperialism is equivalent to terrorism, developing the theory of “the two wings of the eagle” of U.S. empire. Following 9/11, Monthly Review countered the hateful fervor of right-wing U.S. media. Chomsky noted that the United States has always been a leading terrorist state, supporting and participating in a wide range of terrorist actions. In Chomsky’s view, terrorism is only equivalent to the “low-intensity warfare” that the United States unashamedly wages, and the actions of terrorists pale by comparison with those of imperialism.11 The Iraq War shocked the whole world, but beyond the cruelty and inhumanity of imperialist war, William K. Tabb analyzes the historical logic of the U.S. worldwide economic-military intervention system. Positing the concept of “the two wings of the eagle,” Tabb explains:

The one [wing], the Wilsonian, is multilateralist and concerned with constructing global state governance institutions. The other is the unilateralist shock-and-awe approach, which holds that the way to gain respect is to use your big stick. The first tends to be liberal in the terms of U.S. politics and to represent transnational capital and international finance which prefer an open trading system based on the stakeholder hegemony discussed earlier. The second [wing] comes from the cowboy capitalism side, the oil industry, the military contractors, and the religious crusaders.12

Tabb points out that these two tendencies of U.S. policy, between which Washington switches freely, imply the desire of empire to feature both as dictator within neoliberalism and commander within militarism. These two barbaric roles have appeared throughout the history of imperialism.

Monthly Review has also analyzed the structural crisis of imperialism, and predicts that imperialist monopoly finance will pose greater and greater political and economic hazards. Mészáros states frankly that the political and judicial system fostered by the imperialist order has created instability and danger globally by assigning a leading role to monopoly capitalist politics: “What makes all this particularly disturbing is that concerning all matters of major importance—some of which may result in the destruction of humanity—we find at the highest levels of political decision making in the United States an utterly unholy consensus.”13 Monthly Review has also contended that financialization is a feature of imperialism, yet the subject has attracted limited attention compared to neoliberalism or globalization. Many thinkers have commented sharply on the risk of further financial crisis, noting that financialization produces market bubbles that encourage and conceal opportunistic practices. The effect is to weaken the political functions of the state, putting the world on the brink of uncontrollability and threatening to crush the whole system.14

Cracks in Imperialism (2008–15)

The period from 2008 to 2015 was one of crisis throughout the imperialist system. The subprime crisis and the ensuing financial tsunami, both of which began in the United States, swept the international market and set off a domino effect that sunk world capitalism into the biggest systematic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The cracks revealed during this dangerous time for imperialism brought concentrated political criticism from numerous MR contributors. The magazine has spoken out against imperialist monopolies and their role in uncontrollable social disasters, and has argued that the economic crisis, together with military failures, is costing the United States its global hegemony.Robert W. McChesney points directly to the political maladies hidden behind the financial crisis, showing that U.S. politics ignores real human rights and democracy, electing only spokespeople for certain capitalist groups, and takes an indulgent attitude toward political abuses, causing the world steadily greater harm.15 Tabb explains how U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq became notorious for its unilateralism, and that the implosion of global finance has left the Washington Consensus moribund, with the “two wings of the eagle” threatened with the prospect of being fatally broken.16

Monthly Review has called on the global left to seize the historic opportunity provided by the cracks in imperialism, to rethink the Occupy Wall Street movement, and to save the world from further turmoil and danger by exposing the rising ideology of neofascism. Michael D. Yates has shown how the Occupy movement reflected the internal conflicts of imperialism at a profound level. U.S. elections, with their lobbying system and strategy of depoliticization, aggravate the widening class gap, at the same time as imperialism is cooperating on a global scale to raise the level of social exploitation and thwart any progress toward democratic justice and equality. Under the blows of the financial crisis, the United States is seeking once again to adopt the tactics of hostile conservative geopolitics and to reset fascist policies. Foster warns that “this grim reality marks the failed peace—Pox Americana rather than Pax Americana—of a failed system.”17 Amin declares that imperialist politics dominated by monopoly capital should be comprehensively resisted, and advocates a new internationalist liberation movement led by the people.18 The rise of imperialist military interventions and democratic oppression, however, is giving rise to dangerous mutants of fascism, against which the world needs to be on the alert.19

Monthly Review dialectically analyzes the concept of neoimperialism, now popular in left-wing academic circles, and develops an understanding of the present historical stage as that of “the new imperialism of globalized monopoly-finance capital.” The magazine provides a home for independent views on the evolution of imperialism historically and how to understand its features in the new century. In Monthly Review’s special summer 2015 issue, neither Foster nor Amin expresses full agreement with alternative concepts such as postmodern Empire, super-imperialism, and transnational capitalism, nor with the distinction between neoliberal “new imperialism” and “New Deal imperialism.” Both thinkers consider that “the fundamental parameters of imperialism” delineated in classical works remain central even though the “phenomenology” of imperialism has changed.20 Therefore, imperialism in the twenty-first century is simply a new stage in the dominance of globalized monopoly-finance capital; it is not outside the scope of classical Marxism-Leninism, politically or economically, but represents a continuation of the Marxist theory of imperialism.21

Imperialism: The Late Period (2016–21)22

Since 2016, with the presidential election victory of Donald J. Trump, the imperialism of the new century has taken an evermore reactionary and destructive path. Monthly Review criticizes late imperialism’s irrationality and decadence, affirming that, although the imperialist core of the system is weakening, its destructive power in relation to the planet and human civilization is still enormous, requiring a more unified, global revolutionary response.

In this respect, Monthly Review takes a clear-cut stand on revealing the neofascist essence of the Trump administration, criticizing the administration’s right-wing policies and the harm they are doing to the world. While other left-wing publications avoid discussing the neofascist behavior of the United States, Monthly Review has argued that the election of Trump marked a turning point for U.S. imperialist hegemony, coming under severe risk of falling into the neofascist vortex.23 In a 2017 debate with Dylan Riley, a member of the New Left Review editorial committee, Foster systematically explores the connections between neofascism and today’s imperialism, pointing out that Trump-style fascism incites action by right-wing reactionaries around the world and poses a huge threat to the development of society.24 Addressing the havoc created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Foster and Rob Wallace indicate that neoliberalism and neofascism aggravate the systematic oppression imposed by capitalist states, and that racism and nationalism are wielded in attempts to tear apart the world’s political and economic territory.25

Monthly Review analyzes in depth the structure of today’s imperialist politics and identifies the dead end represented by the policies of imperialism. As Amin explains, today’s imperialism is ruled by a tiny minority of the big bourgeoisie, which set out to divide the proletariat and deter it from activity, making political claims via their own media teams, hindering political reform and social development through a specific political system.26 Monthly Review points to the ways in which late imperialism, through grave damage to the environment and the safety of the planet, is leading humanity to the very edge of self-destruction. In addition, the magazine proposes strategies for the left’s fight against late imperialism. For many years, Monthly Review has insisted on the need for the comprehensive study of Marxist ecology, economics, and political science, contending that the Anthropocene (or Capitalinian) and late imperialism directly threaten the earth system, not only putting an end to capitalism, but also to the whole of human civilization.27 Foster observes that, in the late imperialist epoch, humanity faces the multiple threats of neoliberalism, neofascism, fossil-energy capital, and permanent militarism. These require strong social movements able to fight against all aspects of imperialism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, and ecocide, unifying the power of the working class throughout the world and abolishing the Leviathan of capital.28 Monthly Review’s theory of late imperialism unquestionably provides important insights for left-wing activists as they organize and struggle.

21st Century Socialism and the Ecological Socialist Revolution

Faced with the epochal crisis of late imperialism, left-wing thinkers are trying to devise solutions that can save the planet and civilization. As a result, the theory and practice of socialist revolution has become a new priority for study by Marxist political science. During a difficult time for traditional working-class movements and socialist revolutions, Monthly Review actively supports and praises the diversity of socialist revolutionary programs, taking a broad view of global politics, economics, culture, and ecology so as to explore future guidelines for socialist revolutions. Among these plans and directions, theories of twenty-first-century socialism and ecosocialist revolution have become a focus of Monthly Review’s analysis, providing constructive alternatives for the socialism of the new era.

Initiatives of Twenty-First-Century Socialism

Monthly Review strongly supports the theory and practice of “twenty-first-century socialism,” advocating a return to Marx while trying to establish new political dimensions for socialist construction in the new century. Under difficult conditions for socialist movements, Monthly Review has shown a determination to regard innovation and transition in socialist politics as key themes for study. The magazine has therefore focused on the political structure of Venezuelan twenty-first-century socialism, mainly through the work of Michael A. Lebowitz and Marta Harnecker. This work has brought about a remarkable expansion of the range of study of today’s Marxist politics. Here, Monthly Review sets out to establish the basic meaning of twenty-first-century socialism. Lebowitz, for one, addresses three mischaracterizations of socialism for the twenty-first century: (1) It is not a form of capitalism. “Socialism for the twenty-first century is not a society in which people sell their ability to work and are directed from above by others whose goal is profits rather than the satisfaction of human needs.” (2) It is not populism, nor is it “a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state office-holders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards.” (3) It is not totalitarianism, it does not dictate personal beliefs, and does not worship technology and productive forces.29

In line with Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, Lebowitz advocates a revolution from the bottom up, and argues against total control by an authoritarian dictatorship, against calculated social distribution, against environmental degradation, and against factional opposition activity. This reveals a thoughtful introspection and an attention to earlier socialist experience and lessons, articulating a valuable socialist vision in a new way. Monthly Review calls for undertaking a political reform based on what Hugo R. Chávez called “the elementary triangle of socialism,” consisting of an organic relation between social property, social production, and the satisfaction of social needs. If the triangle is to be stabilized, state capital must be integrated within it by political means, and the control and utilization of the state apparatus by reactionary capital must be ended. Lebowitz stresses the need to realize “the protagonism of the people,” so as to help achieve socialist political reform in reality, inheriting and absorbing previous necessary social elements while creating new agencies to devise plans of cooperation and labor allocation to satisfy people’s political and economic needs.30 This process is to end in the construction of a progressive commune-type, where the potential of the people can be fully released.31 Citing the theory of socialist transition put forward by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Lebowitz calls for a political entity built on Lukács’s conception of proletarian class consciousness instead of the Soviet model, indicating that twenty-first-century socialism needs to be different than traditional Marxist state construction theory.

In line with this general approach, Monthly Review anticipates the need to develop “new human beings” through socialist political practice. Lebowitz observes that capitalism produces “the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things, the impoverished human being.”32 Hence, socialism must liberate and develop people as individuals and collectively, allowing them to become new human beings. He quotes Chávez to the effect that socialists have to be made, and that the new type of socialism must be humanist, assigning first place to life and not to states or machines. “Socialism for the twenty-first century is a revolutionary restoration—the return to Marx’s understanding of socialism.”33 To develop new socialist human beings is a necessary demand, one that provides a guarantee of the construction and consolidation of a new socialism, completing the theoretical loop of which twenty-first-century socialism is the practical embodiment.

Ecosocialist Politics

Basing itself on existing critiques of capitalism and on Marxist ecology, Monthly Review posits the creation of an ecosocialism of the twenty-first century. The best-known figure involved in Monthly Review’s Marxist ecological studies is undoubtedly Foster, editor of the magazine and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He has published a long series of high-quality texts criticizing the “epochal crisis” caused by the global hegemony of imperialism in the new century.34 His work has laid out a political path for the establishing of ecosocialism, and posed three main ideas.

First, the ecosocialism of the twenty-first century must get rid of capitalism, the system that prevents humanity’s sustainable development. Twenty-first-century socialism must guide the social revolution with Marxist theory, rebuild the whole system of political analysis and social distribution, and create new socialist models that accord with human needs and the development of the planet. In the period of late imperialism and globalized monopoly-finance capital, the systemic crisis is not only causing an inevitable economic implosion, but is overdrawing natural resources and the earth’s environment. The system itself poses a severe threat to the survival of the human race, and must be replaced.

Foster agrees with Lewis Mumford’s “basic communism” view, expressed in The Condition of Man, that a stationary state or steady state economy is only possible in a society in which distribution is organized “according to need, not according to ability or productive contribution.”35 Under these conditions, socialism utilizes the social surplus, instead of production generated by the profit system, to satisfy people’s requirements and ensure ecological sustainability; it transfers social power to the producers and creates a society based directly on use values rather than exchange values. In this way, it achieves a harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature, upholding Marxist historical materialism in practice, overcoming the quandaries spelled out in the theory of the metabolic rift, and transforming society.

Second, political revolutions must be achieved by working people, who as a new “environmental proletariat” become the subjects of the revolution, entering into alliances with members of a wide range of movements. Ecological Marxists believe that working-class people who are aware of the connection between the crisis of the environment and the tyranny of capitalism are becoming a new environmental proletariat; the effect of their activity is to drive the class struggle beyond the economic realm, intensifying the realistic manifestations of their “co-revolutionary” status, and deepening the connotations of class struggle in the new era.36 Traditional working-class politics joins forces with environmental activism, antiracist struggles, and feminist movements, combining to form a broad revolutionary alliance of great influence and force. Strongly challenging the rule of imperialism and equipped with the guidance of Marxism, this alliance will be at the front of the construction of a future socialism.

Third, the final key idea advanced by Foster concerns the need to expound two stages of the social revolution, discussing the minimum and maximum programs of the revolution and visualizing ecosocialism in specific, practical terms. Foster divides the current ecological revolution into two main stages: (1) As a minimum program at the stage of capitalist democracy, the task is to try to unite as many people as possible, especially oppressed people, into an extensive revolutionary front that can fight for a sustainable mode of social development. (2) After attaining the stage of ecosocialism, it is necessary to enact a maximum program, establishing a society of substantive equality, ecological sustainability, and collective democracy toward the liberation of human beings as well as the return of nature to a state of health. Foster argues that to achieve the minimum program, we need to reduce carbon emissions, undertake a radical redistribution of income and wealth, develop alternative energy sources, divert military spending to the defense of the planet, block fossil fuels, radically cut down consumption, advocate for global cooperation, and protect environmental justice. This, he maintains, can provide the basis for the maximum program that achieves in full the ecosocialist goals of: (1) distribution according to human needs; (2) restructuring the social metabolic system so that it becomes more publicly owned, equitable, and impartial; (3) combining social management, ecological projects, political reforms, and global governance; and (4) achieving systematic security for human reproduction and natural circulation.37 Foster’s initiative is aimed at constructing an ecological socialism that truly cares for nature and serves the broad masses of people, fighting for the freedom and development of the entire human population in the twenty-first century.

The March Toward the Future in Left-Wing Politics

 Monthly Review’s studies in the area of Marxist political science have great value and innovative significance for the present era. The magazine has developed an epochal series of theories that focus on the new situations, needs, goals, and practices for the left in the current century. It explores and promotes Marxist politics historically and realistically; it relates classical Marxist theory to today’s global politics, economies, culture, society, and ecology, using a problem-oriented approach to drive the theory ahead. It explores revolutionary themes and goes beyond existing Marxist theories; it provides leadership to left-wing movements by advancing radical views; it presents a strong challenge to the old system and the authority of capitalism, calling for a struggle to achieve the grand aims of socialism. Finally, Monthly Review opens up a new pattern for international Marxist thinkers and activists—engaging with prominent theorists of the international left; initiating multilateral, multidimensional, and multivariant studies in the area of theory; and pursuing diversity to broaden the scope of Marxist thinking. Above all, the innovation carried out by Monthly Review in all these areas has helped create a huge new academic space for the development of Marxist political science, an achievement that deserves the applause and respect of the entire global left, as well as careful study.

The U.S. left historically suffers considerable repression and more critical academic analyses are often excluded from the mainstream, while many left-wing scholars suffer surveillance and black-listing.38 Additionally, Monthly Review, like most small left-wing publications, faces inherent financial challenges. Nevertheless, the independent socialist magazine has been steadfast in its criticism of the system.

Monthly Review has honestly admitted to shifts in thinking, for example, regarding the development of assessments of China’s socialism over the last two decades. Nevertheless, it has pointed out that China quickly recovered from the world financial crisis, in the process reviving Marxism in the context of the critique of neoliberalism, while the spread of ecological Marxism reveals the vitality of socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era.39 As Foster puts it:

“In this rapidly changing global situation, Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently emphasized the importance of reviving the role of Marxian political economy in China and the rejection of the neo-liberal extremes of neoclassical economics in conjunction with the reassertion of the importance of state property and rural revitalization within the overall economy. All the signs are that China is seeking to defend the strategic non-capitalist elements of its system as a response to the growing hostility of imperial capital at the center of the world economy. China’s answer to COVID-19, employing the model of “people’s revolutionary war” as a way of encouraging the self-organization of the population in its localities, has been a resounding success, pointing to the internal solidity of the polity and the potential revolutionary protagonism of its people. 40

It is to be hoped that that Monthly Review’s Marxism will continue to generate an open, positive, and constructive space for the global development of left-wing political theory in the coming decades of the twenty-first century.

[End Extract]

2019 WAPE CONFERENCE - GERG Conference. July 19 - 21, 2019 ...
Professor Cheng Enfu, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The Author

Cheng Enfu is a principal professor at the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the vice-director of its academic committee, and member of its academic presidium. He is also president of the World Association for Political Economy. Fu Hao is a post-doctoral and assistant researcher at the Academy of Marxism of the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Monthly Review was established by US political economists Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy in 1949, at an especially difficult time for the U.S. left-wing movement, when it was encountering attacks and slanders under the Truman Doctrine and McCarthyism. Nevertheless, Monthly Review  grew and eventually became one of the world’s most influential left-wing magazines. 


The full article is available at the following link –