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Preface of

Unequal Exchange and the prospects of Socialism. By Communist Working Group. Manifest Press, 1986, 233 p., pp. 9-18.

Preface by the Greek-French economist, and writer of Unequal Exchange.

Often in meetings, academic or other, where I was to put the case for my theses on unequal exchange and on the international exploitation which was its outcome, sincere left-wing militants, somewhat at sea, asked the same question in different forms. If this is the case, if the proletariat no longer exists in our industrialized countries, if all, or almost all wage-earners, white collars and blue collars together, have become a labour aristocracy by definition producing less value than their wages allow them to appropriate and thus becoming the objective allies of imperialism, which brings them the supplement, what, then, becomes of the political action of revolutionary marxists? To whom, to which class, to which strata of society can they therefore address themselves?

This question visibly worried them as much as it troubled me. For it is not exactly easy to say to those who nave committed their lives to a cause and who have already sacrificed part of it thereto, that they have quite simply mistaken their side.

This is the question to which the members of the “Kommunistisk Arbejdsgruppe” have replied in this book. One must, they say, quite simply, put oneself at the service of the classes which have an interest in overthrowing imperialism, “… no matter where they are geographically”. This is clearer and more distinct than anything that I have been able to mumble in answer here and there to my various questioners.

This reply is three-fold.

In the first instance, it asserts that the modern structuralist idea of history without actors is unacceptable. The social revolution is borne along by living men. It is not the forces of production which rise up against social relationships. The objective internal contradictions can only replace one structure by another by mobilizing the classes which have an interest in this change. Without that, there is but one alternative to socialism: Barbary and generalized chaos.

It is precisely because of the impossibility today of identifying these classes that the theory of a revolution without revolutionaries has been able to germinate in the minds of a part of the intelligentsia in our industrialized countries. It would have sufficed to place one-self at a point where one viewed the world as a whole to see that these vectors exist.

Thereafter, it reminds us that today the revolution is of necessity anti-imperialist. In the borderline case a social revolution in any of the countries of the centre, supposing even that this could take place, would not lead to socialism but to social-imperialism. On the other hand, an anti-imperialist victory in the Third World, even without a direct socialist content, would indirectly open the way to socialism if only by the impoverishing and re-proletarizing of the centre.

Nevertheless, the surest way would be a break by the underdeveloped countries both with the capitalist system internally by means of planning and with imperialism externally by the elimination of unequal exchange. The first is an internal matter, the second implies that these countries act in concert internationally.

Finally, this thesis shows that, while the conflict is international, that does not necessarily mean that it is a conflict of nations. It remains a class conflict.

But classes can only fight where they exist, not where they do not exist. Now, as a result of some historical changes which Marx could not forecast, classes are no longer distributed “geographically” today, according to the classical intranational model. The proletariat, the true party to the cause of the socialist revolution, has practically disappeared in the affluent countries of the centre. It continues to exist in the periphery.

Thus, when the people of El Salvador revolt, it is primarily against their local exploiters that they turn, and the fact that by fighting them they are led to fight their external allies at the same time in no way changes the classical schema of the class Struggle. What does change is that these allies of the capitalists in El Salvador are no longer only, and not even to any great extent, the capitalists, but also, and above all, the working class in the United States.

Of’ course this does not mean that all the conflicts in the world are dependent on the class struggle. There are major conflicts: struggle of the Palestinians against Zionist colonization, that of the Irish Catholics against another type of “white settlers”, that of the Blacks in South Africa against apartheid etc., which nothing to do with the class struggle.[1] But this does mean that any class struggle in which the ultimate issue at stake is the socialist transformation today inevitably transcends the national level and directly implies an anti-imperialist commitment.

On the other hand, nor does this mean that the workers and the capitalists of the imperialist centre have straightened out everything which separates them. But what separates them is no longer an antagonistic opposition, that is to say, an opposition which can only be resolved by going beyond the existing system; it is an opposition between partners for the sharing of the spoils in the framework of the system. This is the very meaning of reformism. They are therefore natural allies in any outcome in which it is a question of confronting the suppliers of these spoils.

It is not a question of political immaturity of the masses and betrayal by the leaders. It is a question of the contrary: an awareness on the part of the masses of their true interests. No class in the imperialist countries has a stake in the overthrow of imperialism.

The fundamental process remains the same: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery at the opposite pole” (infra p. 55). But instead of taking place “internally” today this process takes place “internationally”. The “zero-sum game”, the condition for the irreducible antagonism, has moved from a national to an international level, whereas within the imperialist centre a “positive-sum game” unites the classes over and above their oppositions.

Must we conclude that imperialism, far from being a “stage of capitalism”, is a prerequisite therefor, according to some theses (Serge Latouche) in circulation at the moment? Should we go as far as to say that the destruction of imperialism would mean ipso facto and automatically the collapse of capitalism by the simple disappearance of the necessary condition of its existence?

Certainly not. I would even say that I do not see the meaning which these theses could have when it is a question of capitalist countries which are subject to imperialism instead of practicing it. Should we then admit that imperialism precedes and gives rise to capitalism in the two directions, both as regards its beneficiaries and its victims? Much more conventionally, Bill Warren [2] only speaks of the “pioneering” of imperialism in the countries dominated and exploited by it, where it is a question of an acceleration of the spread of the capitalist relationships already existing in the centers of imperialism. But, in both cases, how can we explain the fact that capitalism has developed in Latin America and in India much less than in Spain or in Greece? None of these countries have practised imperialism and the last two have certainly been less subject to it than the first.

These theses only take on a definite meaning if one restricts the definition of capitalism to reduce it to its special case, that of over-developed capitalism.[*] Then, yes, naturally, it is easy to understand that without imperialism abroad capitalism would never have been capable of ensuring the masses at home the affluence of the countries of the centre. Depriving these countries of the fruits of imperialism would not automatically overthrow capitalist relations in general in these countries, but would put an end to this aberrant, atypical, non-antagonistic capitalism which is the consumer society and, as a result, would put the normal process of the class struggle, which will destroy these relations, back on the rails.

This, rather crudely summarized and imperfectly interpreted, seems to be the position of the authors. But the latter have not been satisfied with producing a formula; they have inferred a line of political action from it and are themselves personally committed to it. They practice the “geographical delocalization” about which they speak. They have crossed the front lines and have put themselves at the service of the organized revolutionary movements in the South. The structure of this book reflects the progress of their praxis, as I have been able to witness it through personal contacts which I have had with them. Firstly to know the world, then to transform it. But… to know the world as it is today and not as it was in Marx’s time and nevertheless to do this by using the marxist method.

It is not very easy for me to judge the first part, that devoted to reflection. Its convergence with my own ideas is such that I am inhibited for fear of being partial. But I admire the second part devoted to their action. Not only, and not so much for the courage that that implies and the tasks inherent to this type of adventure. But especially for the amount of moral courage that one has to have if one is not to be content with giving up one’s own illusions but tries to dissipate those of others by striking head on at the wishful thinking which is so widespread, so conventional and so “respectable” as that of the present generation of young left-wing idealists in our industrialized countries.


[1] We do not agree with this formulation. Both national and class struggle must be considered in order to understand the conflicts mentioned by Emmanuel. (- Authors’ note)

[2] Bill Warren presents this opinion in his book Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, Verso Edition, 1980. (- Authors’ note.)

[*] Not to be confused with Lenin’s concept of “over-ripe” capitalism. The latter concerns development of contradictions beyond the point where they can be managed within the framework of the system. The former concerns development of the productive forces locally and beyond what capitalism, as a world system, can and did effectively achieve in a world scale.