Some Problems in the Theory of Imperialism

There is a renewed interest in the theory of imperialism on the left. A recent issue from Viewpoint Magazine focused on the subject, offering a range of historical sources and initial thrusts at some of the issues we face in analyzing contemporary imperialism. Even more recently, the Democratic Socialists of America formed an “Anti-War Think Tank” under the leadership of R.L. Stephens. Both of these are encouraging developments, in so far as they are a response to one of the shortcomings of the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements. To put it bluntly: Marxist and radical theories of imperialism have become rather confused, anachronistic, and seem to limit our understanding of the subject.[1]

Just as was the case in the 1960s and ‘70s, recent academic debates about the nature of imperialism have been altogether unhelpful. (For an example of such a confused discussion, see a 2017 panel held at the New School, though I don’t recommend subjecting yourself to the two-hour video.) Giovanni Arrighi’s diagnosis could easily be transcribed from then to now: “This problem was demonstrated at the seminar organized in Oxford in 1969-70, the aim of which was to ‘start a discussion on the theoretical aspects of imperialism between Marxists and non-Marxists, and among Marxists with rather varied approaches’. According to one of the two organizers, the seminar ‘succeeded to the extent that many of the participants felt clearer about their own views at the end than they had been at the beginning. But in others way it failed; on many occasions discussions of some vehemence were conducted at what was obviously cross purposes’.”[2] To summarize: the entire debate on imperialism was made largely fruitless by confusion and disagreement about the basic terms being discussed.

The purpose of this post is to act as a preliminary discussion of some issues that have arisen in my early research on imperialism under capitalism. While these posts don’t generally have a wide readership, I hope this one will save other researchers a bit of time as they start to venture into the substantial (and often repetitive) literature on the subject. I will begin by discussing some of the problems with the most influential treatment of imperialism, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Next, I will briefly discuss some of the general issues involved in the study of imperialism today, and the questions that researchers must address. Finally, I’ve added an appendix at the end summarizing many of the definitions of imperialism offered by Marxist and non-Marxist theorists in their works.

Limits in Lenin’s Definition

Lenin’s Imperialism is without doubt the most historically significant treatise on imperialism ever written. In it, he argues that the struggle between capitalist powers was caused by the trend toward monopoly and the development of finance capital in the capitalism of his day. Drawing heavily on the theories of J.A. Hobson (and Rudolf Hilferding), he held that these developments compelled the imperialist powers to open new outlets to invest their surplus capital, alongside creating new markets and sources of raw materials. Their struggle to open these areas to economic penetration and deny that capability to their competitors in other nations led capitalist competition to be transposed to the competition between states, leading inevitably to the breakdown of the world market and general war.

Lenin had two key purposes in writing Imperialism. First, he wanted to show that the First World War was simply the logical result of capitalist competition between imperialist powers, and that the warring governments deserved no support from their domestic socialist parties. Second, and perhaps more importantly, he wanted to refute Karl Kautsky’s thesis that the post-war period would give rise to an “ultra-imperialism” defined by peace between the capitalist powers and a joint exploitation of the world by an internationally-united finance capital. Instead, Lenin famously stated that the peace would simply amount to a “truce between wars.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Lenin’s broad predictions proved remarkably accurate. Amidst a crisis of capitalism, the major powers increasingly withdrew from the world market to protect their national industries from competition. The world market broke down and the mounting rivalry between capitalist states culminated in a world war even more destructive than the first. This, alongside the emergence of the Soviet Union as a beacon to the world’s Marxists, cemented Lenin’s theory in something of a quasi-biblical status.

But, as Giovanni Arrighi argued in The Geometry of Imperialism, Lenin’s work possessed serious limitations. Not least among them was Lenin’s somewhat-confused association of Hilferding’s concepts of monopoly and finance capital (based upon the domestic merger of banking and industrial capital) with Hobson’s theses about the supranational export of surplus capital. Furthermore, the need to export surplus capital could not explain imperialism in Africa and Asia, as foreign investment in the already-industrialized countries of Europe and the Americas far outweighed investments in the newly-acquired colonies. Nevertheless, the most significant problem for Lenin’s theory was the supersession of the historical conditions it described after the end of the Second World War.

After 1945, the previous heads of the inter-imperialist struggle were economically and politically exhausted. The formal colonial empires of Britain, France, and the other European powers rapidly collapsed over the coming decades, leaving the United States as the largely-undisputed hegemon of the capitalist world. The U.S. faced off against the Soviet Union which, despite its global influence, never posed a viable threat to the hegemony of the United States in the capitalist world. Economically, the conditions that defined the inter-imperialist competition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – namely: the overaccumulation of capital in the developed countries and the rise of financialization – changed radically. Finance capital was suppressed by the leading capitalist states in favor of industrial capital and the newly-emerging multinational corporations. And if the ‘free trade’ regime was not restored for some time, the U.S. at least used its hegemonic power to ensure the spread of capitalist enterprise throughout much of the world. This was the golden era of Keynesianism.[3]

Suffice it to say that Lenin’s Imperialism had relatively little to say about this world. Although imperialist practices continued apace (as U.S. interventions in the Middle East and Asia demonstrated), they could hardly be ascribed to the same processes of financialization and inter-imperialist competition. But the atmosphere of the Cold War seems to largely have prevented Marxists from acknowledging this fact, with some even suggesting that Lenin’s theses were even more valid than in the preceding era.[4] New thinkers somewhat-uncomfortably spliced ideas like uneven development and dependency in with the classical theory of imperialism, leading to acrimonious debates.

These conditions prevailed under the crisis of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Capitalism’s response to that crisis bore some remarkable similarities to the processes of financialization that led up to the First and Second World Wars. However, the new cycle of capitalist globalization and the expansion of free trade was also remarkably different from the formal imperialist conquests of the era of ‘classical imperialism.’ If anything, it is only in the extremely-recent rebirth of major protectionist impulses (in the form of tariffs and blocked acquisitions) that we see something approaching attempts to partially withdraw from competition on the world market. But even now, identifying the contemporary decline of U.S. hegemony with the 20th century inter-imperialist competition that prevailed between the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, and others leaves too many new phenomena unexplained.

And so, we arrive in the present situation, where the majority of leftists who speak of imperialism use Lenin’s theory of inter-imperialist competition to analyze a world system still dominated by a single imperialist power. At least this is the contention of many of the analysts in question, since Russia and China presumably cannot be competing imperialist powers due to the relative underdevelopment of ‘finance capital’ in those countries. (Whatever that particular writer takes ‘finance capital’ to mean.)[5] This theory, moreover, is used to describe the ‘policing’ actions of the current hegemon, or its vastly-lopsided struggles with regional challengers, in place of a struggle between roughly-equivalent military and economic powers.

At this point, it should be obvious that we cannot take the classical theories of imperialism as a trans-historical foundation for the study of the subject. They weren’t intended to be. Lenin’s Imperialism was a political intervention intended for a very particular era of capitalist development: the era of inter-imperialist competition stretching from the 1870s through the end of the Second World War. As we analyze imperialism in the post-war world and in the aftermath of the crisis of the 1970s, we must go beyond these limits.

Some Questions for the Theorists of Imperialism

There are some inevitable questions that arise when we try to construct, or reconstruct, a theory of capitalist imperialism today. To begin, there are basic definitions without which a theorist will be completely lost. A theory of imperialism is a hybrid theory, at least in that it requires: (1) a theory of capitalism; (2) a theory of the state; and (3) a theory of inter-state relations to be founded upon. After this foundation has been laid, there are four main tasks that confront the theorist.

The first task is to distinguish between imperialism in general and imperialism in our own time. Empire-building has been a feature of human history for millennia, and empires have taken many different forms. Classical theorists like Lenin distinguished between imperialism before and after capitalism, and even between imperialisms in different ‘stages’ of capitalist development. So, what is particular to imperialism under capitalism? More specifically, how does imperialism function under today’s capitalism? “In other words, a definition of imperialism must be historically determinate: its validity must be checked against the events and tendencies observable at a particular moment or in a given situation.”[6]

The second task is to distinguish imperialism from other relationships of power and strategies of rule within the capitalist order. When we say ‘imperialism,’ what are we talking about? How is it specific from capitalism in general, colonialism, or inter-state relations? Can we distinguish it from these things? How is it distinct from state-making in general? To paraphrase a comrade: What makes the empire of D.C. over Seoul different from the empire of D.C. over Boston?

The third task is to capture the dynamics of class struggle within a theory of imperialism. By and large, class struggle has played a subordinate role in theories of imperialism that focus on inter-state relations. A theory of imperialism must capture the dynamics of cooperation and competition within and between classes in a given state, alongside those same relationships across state borders. Without this analysis, it will be more-or-less impossible to analyze phenomena like the forms of “empire by invitation” that characterize U.S. imperialism today. Similarly, it will be difficult to point the way to a strategy of anti-imperialist struggle that shifts power in favor of the global working class, not merely a competing ruling class.

Fourth, a theory of imperialism must be politically relevant and capable of mobilizing the oppressed to action. A complex and subtle theory is of little use to us if it cannot further the struggle against imperialism. “A theory which is too precise and too clearly articulated does not normally exhibit great mobilizing power: its distinctive features foster sectarianism and lead to the paralysis of action.”[7] In its time, Lenin’s theory was powerful precisely because it was broad and adaptable enough to be useful to concrete political causes. Today, we have the same responsibility: to construct a theory that will allow us to understand the causes and strategies of contemporary imperialism, while also being accessible enough to move a wide, non-academic audience.

Finally, though not necessarily, a theory of imperialism should explore alternatives to an imperialist foreign policy. This point has been overlooked by most theories of imperialism. How should a state, or more egalitarian political community, behave if it wishes to pursue an anti-imperialist foreign policy? What kind of alliances and compromises are permissible, and what are not? How could the world system be reordered to eliminate the hierarchies and forms of exploitation that characterize capitalist imperialism?

For what it’s worth, I think a renewed investigation has to begin by trying to understand the relationship between cycles of capitalist development and the strategies of imperialism. World systems theory may provide a place to start, though it certainly has its own limitations.[8] For it seems crucial to understand the role of imperialism in expanding and regulating capitalism as a global system, from Britain’s forcible establishment of a ‘free trade’ regime in the 18th and 19th centuries to contemporary U.S. interventions in the Middle East to secure control over the global energy supply.

As others have written, it is vital that we begin reconstructing the anti-war movement, both in the United States and across the world. The actions of the United States and its allies have been largely responsible for fueling disastrous ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Turkish Kurdistan. Tensions between the major powers have escalated in recent years and, in spite of a brief lull, U.S. military planners continue to behave as if war with Russia and/or China is on the not-too-distant horizon. The present U.S. administration has given leeway to the Pentagon and the CIA to pursue their pet projects, has deliberately escalated tensions with Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and has major political incentives to pursue a diversionary conflict to distract from unrest at home. If there has been a revival of interest in the theory of imperialism, it is for good reason: this sham truce between wars already seems to be drawing to a close.


Appendix: Definitions of Imperialism

J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (1902):

The source of imperialism is capitalist inequality and the power of the financial oligarchy. Domestic underconsumption necessitates the creation of new outlets for investment. Despite this, imperialism is not a rational economic policy, and would not be necessary if wealth in a capitalist society were more evenly distributed, so that workers domestically had high enough wages to consume domestic production without a need to open new markets.

Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913):

Imperialism is a state policy of conquest and domination due to the capitalist system’s need to acquire new non-capitalist sources of labor and markets for goods in order to realize produced surplus value and continue expanding. Imperialism is a necessary product of capitalism.

V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917):

Imperialism is a state policy of domination based on the capitalist system’s need to export superfluous capital and open new protected markets, arising in an era of monopolization due to international competition. The era of imperialism will lead to a general war between competing imperialist powers. Imperialism is a necessary product of capitalism.

Joseph Schumpeter, “The Sociology of Imperialisms” (1918):

Imperialism is “the objectless disposition on the part of the state to unlimited forcible expansion.” Imperialism not just due to economic motives, but also the needs of the social structure, the dispositions of leaders, and an atavistic/legacy culture of warfare and militarism. Imperialism will wither away with the increasing progress of capitalism and social rationalization.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951):

Imperialism is “expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics… born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limitations to its economic expansion… [caused by] the overproduction of capital and the emergence of ‘superfluous’ money… which could no longer find productive investment within the national borders.” (Heavily influenced by Hobson’s account.)

Giovanni Arrighi, The Geometry of Imperialism (1978) and The Long Twentieth Century (1994):

(Does not offer a definition of imperialism.) Imperialism cannot trans-historically be reduced to the role of finance capital and the export of surplus capital, as Hobson and Lenin suggest. In different times and places, different capitalist interests have supported and opposed different elements of imperialist policy. The key is understanding how long cycles of capitalist accumulation, and the shifting roles of commodity production and finance, influence imperialist policy at a particular moment. The development of capitalism has been propelled by the rise and fall of hegemonic powers of increasing size, power, and geographic influence, including: Venice, the Dutch Republic, Great Britain, and the United States.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000):

“Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were.” “In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers.” Empire is capitalism creating a truly smooth/globalized world. Empire is the capitalist world order.

David Harvey, The New Imperialism (2003):

(Does not seem to actually define the word imperialism.) Imperialistic practices are “typically about exploiting the uneven geographical conditions under which capital accumulation occurs and [the asymmetries] expressed through unfair and unequal exchange, spatially articulated monopoly powers, extortionate practices attached to restricted capital flows, and the extraction of monopoly rents.” Restricted to “inter-state relations and flows of power within a global system of capital accumulation.”

Robert Brenner, “What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?” (2006):

(Modifying Harvey) The economic roots of the “new imperialism” lie in a long-term crisis of capital overaccumulation. The so-called ‘territorial’ and ‘capitalist’ state logics described by Harvey do not seem to come into conflict. U.S. imperialism post-World War II was qualitatively different from classical phase. U.S. employed hegemony in the advanced capitalist world and coercion in the developing world.

[1] This presumes that an articulated theory is being applied which, more often than not, is not the case.

[2] Giovanni Arrighi. The Geometry of Imperialism. (1978) pp. 9-10.

[3] The more rigid underconsumptionist underpinnings of Lenin’s theory were also partially invalidated by the rise of the welfare state and widespread mass consumption in the developed nations.

[4] Following Arrighi, see: Harry Magdoff. The Age of Imperialism. (1970) and James O’Connor. “The Economic Meaning of Imperialism,” in ed. R.I. Rhodes. Imperialism and Underdevelopment: A Reader. (1970)

[5] It should be noted that the United States and Japan were both net recipients of foreign investment at the onset of the First World War, though both were widely considered to be competitors in the inter-imperialist struggle.

[6] Arrighi. The Geometry of Imperialism. p. 12.

[7] Ibid. p. 21.

[8] Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi’s consistent identification of capitalism with trade and commerce in general, rather than the rise of a specific set of production relations, stands out as counter-productive. A lens that places Venetian trade hegemony in the 15th century in the same broad category as the British imperialism of the 19th century is, I think, too wide for our purposes.

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