Notes on cultural imperialism

Presentation made by Ella Rule to the 6th World Socialism Forum held in Beijing on 16-17 October 2015 under the aegis of the Chinese Academy of Social Science

cultureThe origin of all culture is the daily life of the community from which it arises (Plekhanov). Literature, art and music, although themselves often referred to as ‘culture’ are merely forms in which the culture of a community expresses itself.

Like the collage reproduced on this page, a national culture is made up of thousands of different subcultures, many of which are quite distinct from the overall picture. In the case of a national culture, however, it should be noted that each of the constituent parts of the collage influences and is influenced by the others to a greater or lesser extent at different times, and that the overall picture is ultimately determined by the state of its constituent parts. Each constituent part encompasses the contradiction between the future (necessity) and the past (tradition), which are in constant struggle against each other. As Mao Zedong explained in ‘On Contradiction’, ” the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated with and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes “.

Class culture

Even where the national culture is dominated by elements that cling to the past, i.e., that are historically reactionary, within the imperialist nation collage there will be sections who will be predominantly progressive, such as is, for example – I hope – our Party the CPGB-ML in the UK, who will in fact oppose imperialism and endeavour to mobilise the historically progressive class, the working class, in its own interests, to overthrow bourgeois rule, the capitalist system of production, and imperialist super-exploitation and aggression. These progressive elements will be seeking to establish the proletarian dictatorship and a socialist planned economy. However, until the proletariat manages to wrest power from the bourgeoisie, this does not prevent the ugly face of imperialism imposing itself on the collage as a whole.

Indeed, Lenin reminds us that in every nation there are always two major cultures – that of the oppressor and that of the oppressed. This is necessarily so because the daily life of the oppressed is quite different from that of the oppressor. Marxism is an expression of the culture of the oppressed.

Historically speaking, the culture of a class whose power is waning is reactionary and that of a power which is rising is progressive.

In the modern world, it is the power of the bourgeoisie which is dying away – which has become an anachronism and a danger to the whole future of humanity – and it is the power of the proletariat which is rising and holds the key to the future.

The clash of these cultures, the struggle between them, dominates our era be it at the national or at the international level.

The culture of imperialism is an extension of the culture of domination that necessarily exists in all class societies where a minority ruling class needs to control a majority exploited class.

The essence of this culture is that the exploited and oppressed masses should accept minority class rule in spite of the hardships inflicted on them by this form of organisation of the life of society. In class societies the dominant minority class has a thousand and one ways of penetrating its ideology into the culture of the oppressed. The main vehicle traditionally was religion, but, as we shall see, this has now changed.

The essential norms of this culture are that only the ruling class has the ability to provide society with the leadership and organisation it needs. In the old days, credence was given to this theory by the fact that the education and training to develop these skills was confined to members of the ruling class. The ruling class, however, encouraged the belief that it was their superior genetic inheritance that entitled them to the life of privilege they enjoyed.

Imperialist culture

In order to extend this culture for overseas domination, some variations are introduced into imperialist culture. When the ruling class is seeking to mobilise the oppressed at home for support in its foreign ventures, this supposed superiority is attributed to all the people who share the exploiters’ nationality and/or skin colour. The oppressed classes of the exploiter nation become imbued with racism, only too willing to consider those people of a different race or nationality as inherently inferior beings, not fully human.

The culture of an imperialist nation potentially sets that nation against all others: it’s a question of ‘us or them’. And ‘we’, of course, must consider ourselves better than them, more entitled than them. This lays the basis for proletarians of imperialist countries to be mobilised by their masters to commit even the vilest barbarism overseas.

As far as influencing the masses of the conquered country is concerned, imperialism is able to use the fact of its superior economic development (that actually arises from historical accident) to sell itself as naturally superior.

Until relatively recently religion was used to pacify the masses not only at home but also abroad. Imperialist conquest was invariably accompanied by boatloads of proselytising missionaries of Christianity, the traditional religion of the European imperialist countries.

In the modern world, however, the advance of scientific knowledge has somewhat undermined the influence of religion, which in any event was not always very successful in displacing the traditional beliefs of the conquered peoples. Therefore modern imperialism has developed, along with modern weapons of mass destruction, new methods of spreading mass deception. It pays particular attention to its export of such cultural products as films, television, literature, music and academic studies, and of course intervention in the social media.

The imperialist propaganda is usually subliminal rather than grossly explicit. J A Hobson advised that ” The selfish forces which direct Imperialism should utilise the protective colours of disinterested movements”, advice that the modern imperialists take very seriously through their plethora of NGOs supposedly promoting ‘human rights’, which nowadays put the boatloads of missionaries rather in the shade.

‘Freedom and democracy’

These days the mantra is that being ruled by western imperialism is the best way to live because only western imperialism offers the masses freedom and democracy. Obviously, this was not a line that could be taken by imperialism when it was in control of India or Ireland, for instance, where ‘freedom and democracy’ would not have worked at all in a way beneficial to imperialism. The imperialists point to the regular elections held in the countries of the imperialist heartlands, and the relative freedom of speech enjoyed there, since even genuine opponents of the ruling class have all the freedom of speech they can afford. This is usually not much since it is so expensive to participate effectively in national elections, for instance, that without the backing of the moneybags it can’t be done, What goes unsaid, however, is that such ‘freedom and democracy’ as does exist in imperialist countries is only available because of the weakness of the proletarian movements in those countries. This has arisen because the proletariat of imperialist countries have tended to benefit marginally from their masters’ wealth, with the result that the working-class movement has for decades tended to focus on obtaining a slightly larger share of that wealth rather than on mounting any significant challenge on the right of a tiny minority of exploiters to maintain their capitalist economic system on their territories. The rot has caused many communist parties to ‘revise’ their Marxist ideology in favour of class collaboration, thus depriving the working class of its proletarian leadership. This passivity has not yet been overcome, despite the increasing hardship being inflicted on the working class as a result of economic crisis. But, despite the passivity, as soon as the slightest real challenge appears to even the profiteering of the rulers, never mind to their class rule, out come the forces of the state to suppress it.

Academia targeted

The attention on academic culture as a vehicle for spreading imperialist ideology became especially focussed as a result of the shock received by the imperialist powers when the Soviet Union beat them to become the first to send a satellite into space – the sputnik – in 1957. This shock prompted a rapid overhaul of the educational system which was blamed for the fact the imperialist world was lagging behind a beleaguered socialist country in technical advances. The United States passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 which allocated $295 million to promote the study of subjects deemed to be important for imperialist ‘national security’. Among the departments benefiting from this largesse were those involved in teaching comparative literature, a major bedrock of imperialist culture. As Edward Said points out (op.cit. p.56), ” the academic work of anthropologists, historians, philologists often went hand in glove with a consciously undertaken imperial enterprise”. Academic departments frequently depend on direct grants from imperialist enterprises to finance their research, and it is well known that they have to be careful to produce results that will be at least acceptable to their ‘benefactors’!!! It goes without saying that it takes great wealth to finance the publication of novels, the making of films, the setting up of broadcasting channels, and the artists the media moguls will choose to broadcast will certainly not be those that undermine bourgeois class rule!

Imperialist tactics

Imperialism’s principal tactic for penetrating foreign cultures is to seek out sections of society who can be persuaded that they would be better off in collaboration with imperialism.

When it has capitalist countries that are resistant to imperialist domination in its sights, then it has no problem in finding alienated sections of society who can be seduced with demagogic phrases. Ignorant people deprived of all power and influence over their lives are susceptible to being mobilised with promises of a ‘democracy’ that will supposedly lead to their voices being heard, to be led by the nose by petty-bourgeois and bourgeois elements who think they can advance their selfish interests best by allying with imperialism. Although, as we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Syria, for instance, a majority of citizens often remain deaf to imperialism’s blandishments, the disaffected and unpatriotic minority can cause untold misery for their fellow citizens when supported and armed ideologically and militarily by imperialism and given training and guidance on sabotage.

When imperialism has socialist countries in its sights it has to be more cunning. Of course sanctions are imposed and the ensuing economic problems are blamed on the supposed ‘economic mismanagement’ of the countries in question. At the same time, imperialism targets the intelligentsia and ideologically weak sections in the Communist Party as such people are particularly well placed to influence the general population. Its academic arm has at its disposal to overwhelm them an infinite mass of ‘learned’ material all geared to ‘proving’ that communism doesn’t work, that the market must be forever, that Marxism is out of date, etc., etc., and must at very least be ‘revised’ to take account of the ‘new’ learning.

Of course, a socialist country which feels that it must reintroduce capitalist norms to a significant extent in order to boost production must realise that capitalism cannot be reintroduced without its accompanying ills – periodic crises of overproduction, an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the inevitable alienation of the working masses.

Even then, provided workers are thoroughly imbued with class consciousness, with a deep understanding of Marxism-Leninism, then they may for the most part be persuaded to accept that sacrifices on their part may be necessary for a while in order to achieve the greater good. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, however, political education declined after market socialism was introduced as did the production of revolutionary literature and art. And where proletarian consciousness is lacking there is a vacuum that imperialism is very well adept and practised at filling. It has a whole armoury of literature, art, films and music on hand to sugar the pill when socialist countries start to neglect and abandon the production of promoting revolutionary culture.

In the Soviet Union, imperialist ideology took hold among factory managers and academics in the guise of improvements in socialist efficiency. These then succeeded in overwhelming the ruling Communist Party with this ideology from within, leading to the wholesale revision (distortion) of Marxism and, ultimately, to the Soviet Union’s collapse.


So what are our defences?

  • Class consciousness, class consciousness and again class consciousness.
  • Thoroughgoing political education at every level
  • The promotion of revolutionary literature, art, music, films, television of a quality and in a quantity that leaves no room for the degenerate products of imperialism
  • Academic studies that debunk the fables manufactured in imperialist universities
  • Genuine social progress achieved through public ownership of the means of production and socialist planned economy.
  • Genuine social empowerment of the masses through their creative involvement in socialist planning and its implementation