Revolutionary Communist No. 9 June 1979


Imperialism, National Oppression and the New Petit Bourgeoisie

The main article in this journal is devoted to the struggle of the oppressed in Britain against racism and imperialism. Black and immigrant workers in this country suffer from a dual oppression, both from racism and from class exploitation. They have been forced into direct confrontation with the British state. No other section of British workers is involved in anything like the same degree in such a determined struggle against the British state. This puts black and Irish workers in the vanguard for the overthrow of the British state and against imperialism.

Black people are not alone in their struggle against the British state. The Provisional Republican Movement in Ireland is waging a war for national liberation against the British state. Irish people in Britain, who support this struggle, are systematically confronted and harassed by the British state.

Although black and Irish workers are in the vanguard of the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles, time and again they have been betrayed by the petit bourgeois socialist organisations of the British left. Two events, more than any others, stand out in this betrayal, and both involve the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). In 1969 Socialist Worker supported the intervention of British troops in the North of Ireland, arguing that ‘The intervention of British troops…allows a temporary breathing space in which the defences of the Catholic community can be strengthened’.  And on 25 September 1978 the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) refused to interrupt its Carnival to defend the blacks at Brick Lane. The SWP justified its stand on the grounds that the ‘result would have been…the disintegration of the ANL’, and the possibility that 40,000 people ‘facing 8,000 police might not have broken through and beaten the Nazi marchers’.

The SWP has not only betrayed Black and Irish workers but actually called for support for the very party which sent in the troops to the North of Ireland and which has directed the assault against black and Irish people for the past five years.

The SWP, along with all the major organisations of the British left, called for a vote for the Labour Party in the general election. What this means in practice is that they called for a vote for an imperialist party precisely at a time when many black and Irish workers had come to see and understand its imperialist character.  Black and Irish workers have experienced the SUS laws, immigration acts, harassment, detentions and raids. This is their life under a Labour government. They know of the H-Blocks, the torture, the SAS murder squads, and the PTA.

To divert attention away from the real nature of role of the Labour Party the SWP created the ‘nazi-scare’. This it did by urging all to unite with the Labour Party politicians and trade union leaders to crush the National Front. We too are opposed to the National Front. But as we have argued time and again no effective defence against the National Front is possible without confronting the racism of the British state.  For it has been the racism of the British State, under the direction of a Labour Government for the last five years, which has effectively strengthened and encouraged the racism of the National Front. The alliance of the British left groups with sections of the Labour and trade union leadership in the ANL covers up for the racism of the state.

There are many who agree with our assessment of the ANL but who nevertheless argue that the struggle against the rise of Nazism is paramount to defend us all. They draw analogies with the failure of the Communists to unite with Social Democrats in Germany before the rise of Hitler. They believe that unity with a reactionary Labour Party and trade union leadership is an essential condition for destroying fascism before it gains significant roots.

The analogy is an utterly false and dangerous one. Germany before the rise of Hitler was a defeated imperialist power. Its colonies had been taken from it, its imperialist character destroyed. This could only be rebuilt through militarism; only rebuilding Germany as a military power could lead to its restoration as an imperialist power. Hitler’s objective was precisely this. By destroying the labour and trade union movement, Hitler laid the basis for rebuilding German imperialism through the oppression of the whole population. The unity of the German Communists and Social Democrats to prevent the rise of Hitler, in spite of the Social Democrats’ support for German imperialism before the First World War, was politically necessary, and, in practice, a first step in opposing German imperialism. That unity would have been an anti-imperialist one.

The situation in Britain today is quite different. Britain is one of the strongest imperialist powers and the Labour Party has always steadfastly supported Britain’s imperialist role. The unity with the Labour Party and the trade union leadership in the ANL is a unity with those sections of the British labour movement which support British imperialism. Far from being anti-imperialist, the ANL covers up for Labour and trade union support for British imperialism.

The reality of British imperialism

British imperialism, far from being undermined in the last 10 years, has moved from strength to strength under both Labour and Tory governments. The fall in the rate of profit on industrial capital in the advanced countries has led to an enormously strengthened role for banking capital and, through the export of capital, has increased imperialism’s stranglehold over the oppressed nations of the world. British imperialism, second only to the United States, has been, through its banking system, the imperialist power gaining a commanding position in this process.

UK External Assets
(£ million)



% of total


% of total

Private direct investment





Portfolio investment





Other (mainly oil companies)





UK banking and commercial claims





Public Sector





Total external assets





(Private direct investment – investment by UK companies in their overseas branches, subsidiaries and associates. Portfolio investment – investment in a company which does not give a controlling interest.)

Money lent by financial institutions (i.e. banking claims) have increased between 1962 and 1977 from 18% to 70% of the total external assets of the UK. Beside these figures the accumulated assets from private direct investment abroad – second only to the United States in the world – become quiet secondary. Can anyone now doubt the growing strength of British banking, and hence of British imperialism?

UK banking and commercial claims abroad alone were equivocal in amount to 75% of the GNP in 1977. A comparison of the size of UK banking assets and overall external assets with that of the GNP gives us some guide to the vast scale of the sums involved.

£ million




UK External assets
(direct and indirect)



GNP (factor cost)



Whereas the GNP increased nearly five times (in monetary terms), UK External assets increased eleven times. Can anyone now doubt the growing strength of banking capital? Can anyone question the central role of the export of capital for British imperialism?

The strength of British banking is further seen by the share of the Eurocurrency market transactions passing through Britain. In September 1978, 34% of all transactions and nearly half of those passing through European centres went through the London market. The next largest centre was an offshore banking centre, Bahamas and Caymans, with just over 12%.  When it is recognised that the market’s gross size increased from $110 billion to over $800 billion between 1970 and 1978 the dominance of the London market is all the more remarkable.

Eurocurrency bank credits
($ millions)



% of total


% of total

Imperialist Bloc





Oppressed nations:







Other (mainly Socialist bloc)










The Eurocurrency market is a central source of loan capital throughout the world. By examining that market in more detail we can get some idea of the distribution of loans world-wide in the last few years.The greater proportion of these credits went to the oppressed nations in the last few years, with those going to non-OPEC oppressed nations increasing from 22.8% in 1972 to 38.3% of the total in 1978. If we include the international bond issues then in 1978 oppressed nations raised $41 billion ($30 billion to the non-OPEC ones), an increase of 70% on the previous year. The share of oppressed nations in total international borrowing was up to almost 40%, the bulk taking place through Eurocurrency bank credits.

British banks have not grown out of nothing. They both foster and feed off the financial helplessness of the oppressed nations. The external debt for the largest 20 non-OPEC oppressed nations rose from 19% of the gross national product in 1973 to 25% in 1978, increasing from $72.2 billion to $186.8 billion. Certain countries are running into serious problems to pay their debt. Brazil may be forced to pay two thirds of its export income on debt servicing alone this year. Turkey has a debt of over $12 billion and has no visible way of servicing this debt as all its export earnings are needed to match its oil bill. The debt of Chile, Morocco and Pakistan already approaches the equivalent of one half of GNP. At the end of 1976 India’s total debt was more than twice, Argentina’s nearly twice and Colombia’s one and a half times their average exports.

Murderous regimes, many which share so much in common with fascism, act in the interest of British and American finance capital so that extra-profits can be squeezed out of a working class and peasantry already barbarically oppressed.

It is not just banking capital which is now turning to the oppressed nations of the world to squeeze out from these countries the maximum amount of surplus-value. A growing proportion of foreign direct investment is finding its way to the oppressed nations.

In 1975-76 the oppressed nations accounted for 36% of total international foreign direct investment flows from the major imperialist nations as against 30% in 1969-70. More than three quarters of this investment between 1974-6 came from 4 major imperialist nations, the US (42.1%), UK (12.7%), Germany (11.8%), and Japan (10.4%). Latest figures for 1977 show private direct investment increasing to nearly $9 billion. 26% of UK private direct foreign investment went to developing countries in 1975-6 as opposed to 20% in 1969-70. 39% of US in 1975-6 as opposed to 27% in 1969-70.

A further indication of the massive growth of capital exports to the oppressed nations is the increase of portfolio investment from $1.2 billion in 1970 to $9.1 billion in 1976, an increase which is much faster than the growth of private direct investment.  Together with the even more rapid growth of loan capital, these figures demonstrate the scramble for imperialist super-profits. A handful of imperialist nations led by their banks exploit numerous oppressed nations, condemning the masses of these countries to brutal exploitation, unemployment and starvation, while under the yoke of viciously repressive regimes.

Imperialism denied

Given all this, given the central role of British imperialism in this process, how can the British left justify its call for a vote for the Labour Party? How can it justify its alliances with social democrats who serve the interests of British imperialism? It can do so only by denying what the Labour Party represents, that is, by denying the existence of British imperialism itself. And sure enough, the SWP takes on the job.

Socialist Worker, in an article called ‘Modern Imperialism’, denies not only the importance of the export of capital to the ‘Third World’ but also of a labour aristocracy whose existence is based on the super-profits from those exports. The SWP tells us:

‘In fact neither the export of capital nor the “superprofits” of imperialism play the role they once did. …It is arguable that there has been no net capital export at all (to the Third World) for long periods in the recent past. …Export of capital plays a vital role in modern capitalism but it is overwhelmingly export from one developed country to another. Its economic significance is entirely different…It cannot account for the “corruption” of “labour aristocracies”…by the crumbs of superprofits.’

Not only does the SWP choose to ignore the increasingly dominant role of banking capital over the last 10 years but the very essence of imperialism is denied.

This denial is a very useful one to an organisation which has cemented a political alliance with sections of the labour aristocracy in the ANL and which called for a vote for the Labour Party in the last election. With great distortion of the facts and an even greater ignorance of the theory the embarrassing alliance of the SWP with the agents of imperialism is brushed aside. After all how can one enter into an alliance with what has effectively been denied.

In the light of the above, it is not surprising that the SWP can give a platform to Tony Benn and other Labour Party supporters in the ANL, since these too deny that Britain is an imperialist nation. A remarkable article in the Morning Star cites ‘left’ Labour MP Tony Benn telling delegates at the AUEW–TASS annual conference this year that Britain is now a colony.

‘Britain has moved from Empire to Colony status. “It is a colony in which the IMF decides our monetary policy, the international and multinational companies decide our industrial policy, and the EEC decided our legislative and taxation policies.”’

No doubt Mr Benn would prefer the return of the Empire! The Morning Star saw no reason to comment further on this amazingly reactionary nonsense as the Communist Party itself in its document the British Road to Socialism had already complained that Britain’s entry into the Common Market ‘imposed serious limitations on the country’s sovereignty’.  The Communist Party predictably supports the ANL and called on its members to vote Labour in the last election.

It is therefore no accident that in the very issue of their paper in which they call for support for the Labour Party, the SWP denies the existence of imperialism.  To do otherwise would force them to recognise the existence of the labour aristocracy and its alliance with British imperialism in the British Labour Party.

The labour aristocracy and imperialism

The high monopoly profits for a handful of very rich countries makes it economically possible to create privileged sections among the workers in the advanced capitalist countries and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat. These workers, a labour aristocracy, constitute the social basis of opportunism – they foster, give shape to and strengthen opportunism. By the very nature of British imperialism, especially its operations abroad, this opportunism assumes the form of national chauvinism and racism. This upper stratum of the working class represents the interests of the ruling class in the labour movement. They have a material interest in the continuation of imperialism for it is the source of their economic and political privileges. The Labour Party in Britain has long given political expression to this layer. Ernest Bevin, a Minister in the 1946 Labour government, expressed this quite openly:

‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire because I know that if the British Empire fell…it would mean the standard of life for our constituents would fall considerably.’

Bevin’s ‘constituents’, of course, were not the mass of the working class but is upper strata, its privileged layers.

Little has changed in Labour Party thinking since that time. David Owen, the Foreign Secretary of the last Labour government, night have been a little short-sighted and tactless in continuing to openly support the Shah when his downfall was imminent but he did no more than express the real ties of the British Labour Party to British Imperialism.

The petit bourgeoisie and imperialism

While they give little thought to the imperialist character of the Labour Party, the petit bourgeois socialist organisations of the British left spend much time and effort vetting the credentials of the national liberation movements.

(a)    The Provisional Republican Movement

All the organisations calling for a vote for Labour in this election have attacked the Provisional Republican Movement, which is the leading force in the fight against British imperialism in Ireland.  The Communist Party and the New Communist Party have never supported that fight. The IMG and SWP have organised counter-demonstrations in opposition to the Republican movement. All these organisations have consistently attacked the Provisionals’ bombing campaigns. Most of them have justified their attacks by reference to, what they call, the petit bourgeois nationalist character of the Provisional Republican Movement, and to what they see as its concentration on the armed struggle to the exclusion of mass political action. Socialist Challenge (IMG) even carried an article by Bill Richards, then a leading member of the IMG, which argued that ‘(Provisional) Sinn Fein’s claims as a party of the working class should not be taken too literally’. The supposed reason for this was the programme of the Provisionals ‘Eire Nua’ which according to Bill Richards ‘is marked by its inability to champion the struggles and demands of the most oppressed layers of Irish society’.  So there we have it. The Provisional Republican Movement which is, in fact, a national liberation movement, leading the struggle of the most oppressed layers of the Irish people against British imperialism, is attacked by a British organisation – the IMG – for failing to champion that struggle. Yet this very same British organisation – the IMG – calls upon workers to vote for a British Labour government that is actually directing the attack against the most oppressed layers of the Irish people – the working class in the nationalist areas.  The British left tells us that the Provisional Republican Movement actually fighting imperialism does not represent the interests of the working class whereas the pro-imperialist Labour Party in some perverted way does. Even the ruling class has a clearer grasp of reality than the petit bourgeois organisations of the British left. In a secret document prepared by British military intelligence, which recently came into the hands of the Provisional IRA, we read

‘PIRA is essentially a working class organisation based in the ghetto areas of the cities and in the poorer rural areas. Thus if members of the middle class and graduates become more deeply involved they have to forfeit their life style…’  

In its war against the Irish people the ruling class in Britain has been forced to admit precisely what the British left refuses to accept.

(b)    The South African liberation movement

Southern Africa is of prime importance to British imperialism and South Africa is where British imperialism will have to make a vigorous and possibly final stand. The South African racist state is nourished and supported by British imperialism. This makes it all the more necessary for British left organisations to give their unconditional support to the struggle of the leading organisation of the South African liberation movement – the African National Congress (SA) against the South African racist state. Yet this organisation receives exactly the same kind of criticism as the Provisional Republican Movement from the British left.  Socialist Challenge (IMG) critics the ANC(SA) because it ‘has been posturing as the leader of everything that goes on in South Africa’. We are told that it was ‘found seriously wanting during the events at Soweto’ and that its ‘ability to influence the course of events in South Africa remains nil.’ It is then attacked for engaging in the ‘course of armed struggle’ which, according to the IMG, is ultra-left.  The SWP informs us that the ‘struggle for national liberation in Southern Africa requires the critical examination and, indeed, we would argue, the rejection of the ideology that has given expression to that struggle – African nationalism’. However, ‘to the extent that nationalist organisations like ANC, PAC, and BPC fight the apartheid system, they should be supported’. But we are warned that ‘the leadership of the national liberation movements including the ANC have typically been petty bourgeois both in social position and in ideology.’  This criticism, which comes from a British organisation, is directed at a movement struggling against a racist state shored up by British imperialism. The ANC(SA) is not only fighting the South African racist state but is confronting its main backer, British imperialism.

The extent of Britain’s involvement in South Africa is enormous. British companies account for over 50% of total foreign investment in South Africa, which at the end of 1976 was estimated to be R19bn (£10.5bn). South Africa accounts for one tenth of the total of UK overseas direct investment with a value of some £4bn. In addition there is substantial indirect investment of about £3bn and invisible earnings running at over £1bn a year.

The role of British banking in South Africa is a dominant one, and the South African subsidiaries of British banks account for a significant proportion of the total world operation of the parent banks. The growth of the assets of two banks in South Africa, Barclays National (63% of shares held by Barclays) and Standard Bank Investment Corporation (59.5% shares held by British parent company) speak for themselves.


Total Assets (Rm)


Rankings in private companies both in 1967 and 1978





Barclays National




Standard Bank




The imperialist connections between Britain and South Africa clearly reveals the anti-imperialist character of the ANC, since it is a liberation movement that is determined to overthrow the racist South African state.  However, the British left is willing to give support to that movement only ‘to the extent that’ and ‘in so far as’ it is anti-imperialist. This conditional support can only sow doubt in the minds of British workers about the kind of support they should give to the ANC(SA).

It is clear, however, that what requires ‘critical examination’ is not the revolutionary nationalism of the Provisional Republican Movement and the ANC(SA) but the petit bourgeois ideology of the British left. More clearly than before we can see what lies behind the SWP article on ‘modern imperialism’.

If capital exports to South Africa and to the ‘Third World’ are no longer necessary, if the advanced capitalist countries are no longer squeezing out super-profits from them, then there is no real necessity for national liberation movements to take on an overtly anti-imperialist form. It is not surprising that the SWP, like the IMG and the others, dismisses liberation movements as (petit) bourgeois nationalist ones. It is not surprising that the SWP does not regard these movements as central to the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide. The SWP denies the reality of imperialism in order to justify its lack of support for liberation movements. They deny that these movements have chosen the only path to a better and just society – the anti-imperialist struggle. This denial on the part of the SWP and others highlights the privileged position occupied by such groups in the imperialist heartland.

The emergence of the new petit bourgeoisie and the alternatives facing it

The relative prosperity in the imperialist nations during the post-war boom was based on two essential factors: 1) the defeat of the working class before and during the Second World War, and 2) the dominant position of US imperialism throughout the capitalist world.  This prosperity allowed bourgeois democracy a certain lease of life. It gave rise to new privileged sections of the working class – the new petit bourgeoisie – sections of which were able to obtain lucrative positions as trade union officials, journalists, lawyers, politicians, academics, economists, teachers, civil servants and the like. The privileges and status of these layers depends directly on the continuation of imperialism – the attempt to shore up the prosperity of the post-war boom through the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples.

The British petit bourgeois socialist groups, on the whole, draw their membership from these new privileged layers – the new petit bourgeoisie. As the crisis of imperialism deepens these layers will be faced with a choice. Either to side with the most oppressed sections of the working class, the blacks and the Irish, as well as the liberation movements struggling against imperialism. Or to seek to relative respectability and security in alliance with the other privileged layers in the trade union and labour leadership. There is no middle road.

To side with the working class and the oppressed, to break with imperialism, means to break the alliance with the labour aristocracy and its political organisations. It means to give up a relatively secure and privileged existence in order to side with the oppressed. The British Intelligence document on the Provisional Republican Movement included a comment on this essential point: ‘if members of the middle class and graduates become more involved they have to forfeit their lifestyle.’ The point is somewhat starkly put but its meaning is admirably clear. The oppressed have made their choice, they will fight back, they will struggle against imperialism, in order to survive. The new petit bourgeoisie has a choice – to side with the oppressed, with the consequences that entails, or to defend material and political privileges by joining with the oppressor.

As the crisis of imperialism deepens the leadership of the petit bourgeois organisations of the British left are making their choice. Increasingly they are siding with those supporting imperialism and attacking those taking up the armed struggle against imperialism.

The struggle continues internationally…

Internationally British imperialism is increasingly being challenged as the struggle of the oppressed intensifies. The magnificent struggles of the South African blacks, at its height during the Soweto uprising, is now simmering again beneath the surface as South African racist state, backed and supported by British imperialism, intensifies its brutal oppression. But the courage and example of the ANC freedom fighters like Solomon Mahlangu, murdered recently by the South African racist regime, will not go unavenged. The ANC(SA) has now stepped up its activities in South Africa itself – the armed struggle will now intensify.

British imperialism has been given little respite. For as one struggle temporarily ebbs another comes to the boil. The Iranian people came out in the streets in their millions to put an end to the savage and barbaric dictatorship of the Shah – a dictatorship which was engineered by and which could only survive through the direct intervention of British and American imperialism.

As the struggle of the Patriotic Front, of SWAPO and the Irish people painstakingly go forward, British imperialism shows it can only maintain its rule by brutality, repression, corruption and lies. Its rule abroad shows the working class here what lies in store for it as the crisis of imperialism deepens.

…and at home.

The revolutionary movement in Britain faces a vitally important task. The greatest threat to British imperialism in the coming period is a movement which unites the struggle of the working class in Britain with the struggle against national oppression both at home and abroad.

The conditions for this exist already. As we have said black workers in this country suffer under a double yoke both as blacks and as workers. As part of the oppressed they know there is no way forward other than the struggle against the state. As members of the working class they are better placed than any other section of the exploited to help raise the consciousness of the mass of workers. This they are able to do more than at any time before precisely due to the disillusionment that many workers have experienced through the betrayal of their interests by the Labour Party. This is most striking in the case of low paid workers and in the public and service sectors. It is no accident that it is precisely in these sectors, where black and Irish workers labour side by side with their non-black comrades that this disillusionment has been carried furthest.

The recent economic struggles of British workers has increasingly brought sections of them into conflict with their trade union leadership and the Labour Party. The low paid workers in the state sector ignored the pleas of the labour and trade union leadership not to undermine the election prospects of the Labour Party and continued with their strikes and pickets in the winter months of 1978-9. These workers shouted down the ‘platform’ of trade union leaders after the massive demonstration in January 1979 because they felt betrayed. The May 1979 National Conference of the NUPE had motions on the agenda calling for the union to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. This experience of British workers can be built on, and their consciousness raised, only if they are won to a movement in opposition to British imperialism.

The revolutionary movement in Britain will be advanced only through resolute commitment to the struggles of the oppressed. It must help to consolidate the vanguard which already exists in Britain and is now fighting the British state. It must also provide the organisational means whereby the less advanced workers can rise to the ranks of the vanguard itself. To do this will necessarily demand a struggle against what is now the greatest barrier to building a revolutionary party in Britain – the petit bourgeois socialist organisations of the British left.

The break with petit bourgeois socialism.

In 1903, before his break with Marxism, Plekhanov stressed the importance of ruthless criticism directed even more at the false friends of the working class than its open enemies.

‘Open enemies were less dangerous because they were no longer able to blunt the class-consciousness of the proletarians, whereas petit bourgeois socialist with their “classless” programmes were still influencing many workers.’

As the crisis of imperialism deepens those that cover up for the Labour Party, who call for its re-election on a more democratic and socialist basis, today are a greater danger to the working class than the Callaghans and the Healeys who have already been exposed. Those who claim to ‘fight’ racism through the ANL and so cover up for the racism of the Labour Party and the British state are more dangerous to the working class than the Powells and the Bidwells. Those who refuse to give unconditional support to those fighting British imperialism in Ireland or South Africa are more dangerous to the working class than the Roy Masons, and the David Owens.

The crisis shows us the open enemies of the working class – the false friends have to be struggled against and exposed. The RCG will do its utmost to be at the centre of the struggle to destroy the influence of these ‘false friends’.

David Yaffe
June 1979