Before answering Martin Nicolaus’s critique of ‘Where is America going?’, the origins and intended function of that article should be explained. It is the transcript of a speech given to a seminar of Finnish students at Helsinki, in the framework of a symposium on ‘American imperialism today’. It was not intended to be a global analysis of the contradictions of American imperialism, still less a broad outline of American or world perspectives, in the coming decades. I do not consider myself an expert on us capitalism; there are Marxists who are much better equipped to tackle such an analysis, among them close friends of mine in the usa. It is sufficient to recall the origin of this transcribed speech to understand the limitations of the subject with which it dealt, arising out of the needs of an elementary division of labour. Other speakers, in the first place Perry Anderson, dealt at that same symposium with the phenomenon of American imperialism, its industrial-financial-military infrastructure and its repercussions at home and abroad. To myself fell the task of outlining trends inside American society which were slowly eroding its previous relative social and political stability. It was taken for granted that the worldwide activity of American imperialism, and its contradictions, had been analysed by previous speakers and assimilated by the audience. For this reason I mentioned them only in passing.footnote1 Surely, even the harshest critic could not believe that I ‘underestimate’ the stupendous effects of the Vietnamese war on social political and ideological developments in the usa.

What was the political purpose of my speech? It was, obviously, to oppose the fallacies of that ‘Third Worldism’ which, from Franz Fanon and Lin Piao to Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, writes the American working class off any medium-term revolutionary perspective.footnote2 It is clear that only the most mechanistic and undialectical ‘marxists’ would deny that the national liberation movements in colonial and semi-colonial countries, and their potential development into socialist revolutions (under adequate proletarian leadership), are part and parcel of the process of world revolution as it has unfolded for 40 years, since the second Chinese revolution of 1925–27.footnote3 This mean that the inter-relationship between the colonial revolution and the socialist revolution in the West (as well as the inter-relationship between the colonial revolution and the political anti-bureaucratic revolution in the so-called socialist countries) is complex and manifold.

The difference between revolutionary Marxists and supporters of ‘Third Worldism’ does not lie in the fact the first deny this inter-relationship and the second uphold it. It lies in two basically distinct approaches to the nature of that inter-relationship. Revolutionary Marxists do not believe in a fatal time-sequence, whereas ‘Third Worldists’ do believe that imperialism has first to be overthrown in all, or the most important underdeveloped countries, before socialist revolution is on the agenda again in the West. Lin Piao’s famous thesis that the ‘countryside’ will have to ‘encircle the cities’ is the most striking expression of this idea. Revolutionary Marxists do not believe that the loss of an important or even a decisive part of foreign colonial domains will automatically create a revolutionary situation inside the imperialist countries; they believe that these losses will only have revolutionary effects if they first trigger off internal material changes inside imperialist society itself. Between world politics and revolution in the West there is a necessary mediation: changes in the function of the economy, changes in the relationship of forces between classes, changes in the consciousness and militancy of different social groups.

It is now possible to clear up a misunderstanding which permeates all of Nicolaus’s critique. When I spoke of ‘internal’ developments as against ‘external effects’ upon us society, I did not have a geographical but a social context in mind. The very argument which Nicolaus attacks most strongly—our thesis that inter-imperialist competition is already and will be increasingly one of the forces upsetting the relative internal stability of us imperialism—should have shown him this. After all, ‘geographically’, competition from Western European and Japanese imperialism is not an ‘internal’ but an ‘external’ factor in the usa. Why did I treat it the way I did? Because I was looking for effects of world developments on social forces, on classes and layers inside imperialist society. Without this necessary mediation, historical materialism ceases to be a ‘guide to action’ and becomes an empty economism and fatalism.

From this point of view, to speak of the world as one society, as one single framework for political action, is an impermissible metaphysical abstraction. It is quite true that imperialism has woven all countries and societies of the world into a single net of world market and world exploitation (with the exception of those countries which, through a socialist revolution, have been able to break out of this net). It is also true that monopoly capital of the imperialist countries exploits in various forms and to various extents the workers of ‘its own country’; workers of foreign imperialist countries where it invests capital; workers of underdeveloped countries; poor and middle peasants of these same countries; peasants and artisans of ‘its own country’; nonmonopolized sectors of the capitalist class of ‘its own’ and foreign imperialist countries; and practically the whole ruling class of underdeveloped countries. But to draw from this the conclusion that the differences in form and degree of this exploitation have become secondary and insignificant or to argue that because exploitation is universal, it is also homogeneous, is to have a completely lopsided view of world reality under imperialism, yesterday as well as to-day, and to open the road to disastrous analytical and political mistakes.

The historical specificity of imperialism in this respect lies in the fact that although it unites the world economy into a single world market, it does not unify world society into a homogeneous capitalist milieu. Although monopoly capital succeeds in extracting super-profits, directly or indirectly, out of most of the people on earth, it does not transform most people in the world into industrial producers of surplus-value. In short: although it submits all classes and all nations (except those which have broken out of its realm) to various forms of common exploitation, it maintains and strengthens to the utmost the differences between these societies. Although the United States and India are more closely interwoven today than at any time in the past, the distance which separates their technology, their life-expectancy, their average culture, the way of living and of working of their inhabitants, is much wider today than it was a century ago, when there were hardly any relations at all between these two countries.

Only if we understand that imperialism brings to its widest possible application the universal law of uneven and combined development, can we understand world history in the 20th century. Only if we understand this law of uneven and combined development can we understand why, because of an integrated world market, the first victorious socialist revolutions could break out in three underdeveloped backward countries, Russia, Yugoslavia and China. Only if we understand how this same law continues to operate today can we understand that the decisive battle for world socialism can only be fought by the German, British, Japanese, French, Italian and American workers.