The Four Categories of Contradictions

How should revolutionaries engage with the various contradictions operating in the world?

[From M-L-M Mayhem.]

Recently, a close comrade of mine was recounting a story where he told a younger activist that, although he supported Tamil self-determination he did not whole-heartedly support the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) because their cultural-nationalist project resulted in the liquidation of numerous leftist Tamil groups (such as supporters of the Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist)).  Unfortunately, the younger activist misunderstood the critique, taking it to mean that my comrade was somehow anti-Tamil self-determination and was incapable of understanding what he was trying to argue.  Conversely, when many of us leftists argue that we support, for example, Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli imperialism we are often misunderstood as supporting Hezbollah’s political project itself when this is often not the case.

Oft-times many of us still have difficulties thinking through these problems: we understand that imperialism is wrong but we also understand that certain groups also veiled as anti-imperialist possess a political dimension that we, as people against oppression, cannot rightly support.  I want to suggest that the trick of understanding how to understand these problems, however, lies in understanding the four major categories of contradictions that determine the structure of global capitalism.  And so, in my typically blaise manner, I have attempted to simplify and describe these categories.

1.  Contradictions between imperialisms

Although the imperialists want you to believe that every “democratic” country is united in a war against barbarous “terrorism” there is not that much unity.  The favourite corporations of each national market are still competing, especially in this rush to export as much capital into the recently reconquered peripheries.  Blair might have shaken hands with Bush back during the War of Terror glory days, but behind those smiles were neo-colonial considerations that made the handshake more an “enemy-of-my-enemy” kind of thing.  While the other imperialist countries currently have to kiss the ass of the most powerful imperialist country––and the latter is happy that it controls the IMF and WTO––it is not like they’re all BFFs who have sleep overs and text each other every day.

Both World Wars also demonstrated this contradiction category, the realignment of imperialist power happening in both post-war periods: the first much more clearly than the second, but it was the second that assured America’s ascendance as the primary global imperialist power.

And then there’s the fact that China is now a rising capitalist-imperialist power, regardless of its pseudo-communist trappings (Deng’s post-Mao China was very ra-ra free market), that ascendant American imperialism clearly views as a threat.  The current flurry of sinophobia and the reinstatement of the “yellow peril” discourse is evidence of a contradiction between capitalist-imperialist states, even if China’s chances of dominating the world market are not very good.

Nor is every imperialist country united in some Kautskyian super-imperialism or Hart and Negri empire: capitalists compete (see category 2 below), so it’s only logical that capitalist states will compete.  While some theorists, both left and right, would like to imagine that capitalism is not partially-determined by nation-states, and that enterprising capitalists are fluttering freely upon some flat earth without concern of national ideology or state barriers, this is clearly not the case.  There are states and there are nations and finance-capital, as the current crisis has demonstrated, is clearly dependent on the structure of national markets: the fact that governments paid billions to save their banks, or that corporations will involve themselves in their respective countries’ military ventures,  should be evidence of this dependency.

This category can also be confused with category 3 below.  The Social Democratic Party of Germany, once the centre of European communism but now the reason why “social dem” is an insult for leftists, made the mistake of confusing bourgeois nationalist competition between imperialisms as potentially progressive––hence Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s rejection of the SDP and the collapse of the Second International.  Canadian commies have also made this mistake, confusing the competition between the weaker Canadian imperialism and the stronger American imperialism as a contradiction between, respectively, oppressed and oppressor nations.  Clearly this is not the case: Canada still exports capital and participates in imperialist adventurism; it is important to understand the contradictions between Canada and America, then, as part of this category.

2.  Contradictions between capitalists

Capitalists compete, that’s what it means to be capitalists.  Oh they might be united in their love of the market and making profit, and in agreement that everything that threatens capitalism should be crushed, but if it comes to pauperizing their fellow capitalists to make a quick million it’s what they do to survive.  Capitalism is all about competition and Malthusian cut-throat “realism.”  Although objectivists and libertarians might believe that this sort of competition will lead to some bizarre market utopia where Adam Smith’s magical invisible hand will sort everything out, the fact is that––if you really think about it––back-stabbing each other for more surplus value is rationally unstable.  Imagine if a bunch of construction workers were told that the last person to finish building a highrise would, thanks to the magic of self-interested market reality, get the most money: would the highrise be built with any real success or would the fact that they were undermining each other lead to the worse possible structure?

This is why the first category (see 1 above) structures the second (and vice versa): competition logically leads to instability and there needs to be something to structure that competition.  Imagine a game of [insert your favourite sport here] without rules and boundaries.  Wouldn’t work very well would it?  Now imagine if you’re playing for higher stakes, and not just a pick-up game with your friends, like in a professional league: coaches and referees and people to police the boundaries between competitors are required.  Libertarians, objectivists, and “pure” economists would have us believe that a game without policed and enforced boundaries can be played on a global scale as if the market is some abstract Platonic form that will just insert itself upon this crude reality with beautiful ease.  This is yet another reason why they are stupid.

[Yes I know the libertarians will troll me for this so I'll say it now: you will write all this crap about how you don't think I've read Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick because I'm "not taking you seriously."  But guess what?  I don't think you should be taken seriously and I already waste enough time in other areas of my life actually reading your garbage and examining its fallacies.  Please take a course on basic logic and then tell me about "objectivism."]

There is also the fact that sectors of capitalists compete ideologically with each other.  Elections in parliamentary “democratic” countries demonstrate this form of capitalist competition: these are the spaces where, according to Lenin, “the ruling classes argue amongst each other about how to best mispresent the people.”  Different groups of capitalists have different perspectives on how to be capitalists: the Bill Gateses and the Rockefellers want to be philanthropists; the Koches want to manipulate crypto-fascist movements.  The state still sets the parameters, however, of the playing field between capitalist sectoral competition.

3.  Contradictions between oppressor and oppressed nations

The failure to recognize this contradiction category and the one following have caused so much confusion amongst the North American left.  The NA left really needs to get its shit together here: I blame this on a pernicious Trotskyism that has never really understood imperialism and its relationship to capitalism and an anarchism that often can’t wrap its collective head around national self-determination. [To my anarchist friends/comrades, I am saying an anarchism here, not all anarchism.  I guess I’m also saying a Trotskyism…]  And when this left does try to figure it out they are so confused.  No wonder Christopher Hitchens thought he was being “left” when he sided with the reactionary imperialists: he lacked the theoretical background to figure things out.  That and he was also, in the words of Galloway (who sometimes makes the opposite mistake as Hitchens), a “whiskey soaked popinjay.”

In any case, due to the relationship of imperialism, there are clearly nations forced into dependency and victims of those nations that control capitalism.  Often these nations have nationalist movements that might not have the best ideology.  Political Islam, for example, is not a very progressive ideology––but the point is that it is progressive in the very small context of anti-imperialism.  That is, imperialism is the bigger problem and the petit-bourgeois nationalists are still fighting against imperialism.

The problem, however, is that those leftists who understand that imperialism is bad often make the mistake of supporting every anti-imperialist struggle without qualification.  Hence the Socialist Workers Party support of the Muslim Brotherhood––even though the Muslim Brotherhood likes killing communists.  It’s like the majority of the North American left suddenly decided to not think dialectically or critically.  It is important to support anti-imperialist struggles but a dialectical materialist accepts that they should be supported against imperialism but also treated as a potential and future enemy.

Leftist movements that liquidated themselves in petty-bourgeois nationalist movements in the past, like in Algeria or Iran, ended up being physically liquidated.  So much for entryism (sorry Ted Grant’s Fight Back!), so much for an unqualified approach to anti-imperialism.  The trick, as the Chinese communists under Mao figured out in China, is to unite in a common front with the petit-bourgeois nationalists against imperialism but always maintain an autonomous and parallel force with the understanding that these nationalists will be your enemies (see point 4 below) once you defeat the imperialists.  They don’t like you and so you shouldn’t like them: there is a definite contradiction between your ways of seeing reality.

And yet leftists seem to think it’s an either/or situation, as if there’s no strategic reality or hierarchy of priorities.  The Hitchens-type pseudo-leftists embrace the imperialists, wrongly believing that the fight against subaltern Islamism is the same as a common front against Nazism when, in point of fact, it is the very opposite: a common front against the threat of American imperialism, the most powerful of imperialisms, must be understood as similar to the common front against Nazism.  On the other hand SWP idiots think it’s wise to fund dubious nationalist groups rather than, you know, maybe the actual left organizations who are also waging war against the imperialists.  I celebrate when the Taliban takes out an American encroachment but that does not mean I celebrate the Taliban.  Because once they take over Afghanistan the situation breaks down into the…

4.  Contradictions between ruling and ruled classes

Under capitalist modes of production this is obviously the principle contradiction between bourgeois and proletariat.  Under other modes of production, though still subordinated to a capitalist world system, the ruling and ruled classes differ: this is a whole can of worms that will take multiple entries to discuss, and I have written multiple entries (like this one) that are always discussing the issue of class contradiction/composition in various ways.  Generally speaking, however, this contradiction is what characterizes a mode of production.

If you try to resolve this categorical contradiction by being “anti-capitalist” at the expense of anti-imperialism, or by being “anti-imperialist” at the expense of being anti-capitalist, then you are supporting both capitalism and imperialism.  This is the period of monopoly capitalism, after all, where imperialism and capitalism are interconnected: we cannot ignore one at the expense of the other, the point is to understand how categories 3 and 4 are connected and how to distinguish them from the ruling class categories of 1 and 2.

For example, the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan does not waste its time fighting with Taliban insurgents, choosing instead to fight a parallel struggle against US-led imperialism.  At the same time, however, it refuses to liquidate its forces into the Taliban because it knows that, if imperialism is defeated, then the Taliban will be its principal enemy: they are thinking of this category of contradiction while they are at the same time engaging in the previous category. Unfortunately, mainstream anti-imperialists here think its cool to support the Taliban rather than actual Afghani leftists which says a shit-load about mainstream leftist idiocy.  Maybe it’s not “cool” to support Maoists because euro-marxism and white-anarchism has all these ideological hang-ups about Maoism (never mind the fact that the majority of revolutionary movements in Africa and Asia are heavily influenced by Maoism and think these hang-ups are bullshit), but how is it cooler to support theocratic anti-imperialists?

Of course, this mode of production contradiction category can be further complicated by other contradictions––contradictions connected to race or gender or etcetera––but the fact remains that, however we want to understand it, it still needs to be understood.  The fact that the bourgeois class, however codetermined by other oppressions, owns the means of production and exploits a proletariat, however also determined, on a world scale (see categories 123 above) is the foundational contradiction of the existence of capitalists and imperialists.  These other and codetermining contradictions also interact, in different ways and in different contexts, with the other three general contradictions: patriarchal style capitalism versus liberal “feminist” capitalism is sometimes a clash in the second contradiction category; direct settler-colonialism versus neocolonial monopoly capitalism, the former mobilizing far more racist ideology, is a contradiction of the first category… we can easily think of so many others.

One thought on “The Four Categories of Contradictions

  1. I would add to this that one should not confuse hostility towards a particular imperialist power with being against imperialism as a system. There are countries and movements that are (for example) in contradiction with American imperialism but have no problem cooperating with Russian imperialism.

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