The most important recent article on imperialism you’ll read

November 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm (AWL, imperialism, Marxism, posted by JD)

Marxism and imperialism

Image from

Lenin’s theory has been turned into dogma

By Martin Thomas

(First published in 1996)

We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition…. Our tasks… we realize not through the medium of bourgeois governments… but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow. Such a ‘defence’ cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority. Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us.

Leon Trotsky

By the end of the ’60s, what had once been ‘the pride’ of Marxism – the theory of imperialism – had become a ‘Tower of Babel’, in which not even Marxists knew any longer how to find their way.

Giovanni Arrighi [1]

There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a ‘negative’ Social-Democratic slogan that serves only to ‘sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism’ without at the same time offering a positive answer to the question of how Social-Democracy will solve the problem when it assumes power. A ‘negative’ slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not sharpen, but dull, consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, meaningless declamation.

V I Lenin [2]

If European capitalism needed colonies in the first half of this century, why has it not collapsed without them in the second half? If early 20th century imperialism marked ‘the highest stage of capitalism’, the ‘epoch of capitalist decay’ – as revolutionary Marxists wrote at the time – what is the late 20th century?

To answer these questions we must first clear away much confusion. Though Lenin’s famous pamphlet on imperialism is one of the finest polemics in the whole of Marxist politics, the ‘Leninist orthodoxy’ which made it, or rather a garbled version of it, into the master-textbook of twentieth-century world politics and economics has confused rather than clarified. The concepts of ‘export of capital’, ‘finance capital’, or ‘monopoly capital’ as the essence of the matter are – so I shall argue – neither special theoretical innovations of Lenin, nor adequate keys for an understanding of imperialism in a broader view of history.

Imperialism and high finance: Kautsky builds on Engels to answer Bernstein

Maybe the first big classical-Marxist statement on imperialism was by Karl Kautsky, in 1899, replying to Eduard Bernstein’s call for a ‘Revision’ of the perspective of Marx and Engels.

In the 1890s Engels had identified monopolies, cartels, credit and high finance as expressions that classic individual capitalism was decaying and becoming ‘socialistic’, but in an upside-down way which sharpened plunder, swindling, and crises. Colonialism was a profit-making venture of the new financial aristocracy. [4]

Bernstein argued, on the contrary, that the new trends made capitalism more open to peaceful and piecemeal progress. Credit gave the system more flexibility. Industrial cartels (associations of companies bound together by agreements on production levels, prices and sales) gave the capitalists more conscious control. They could avoid overproduction by mutual agreement. The growth of the world market, and improvements in communications and transport, also made the system more flexible. Capitalism could probably postpone ‘general commercial crises’ for a long time.

Bernstein criticised the way the German government pursued its imperialist policy, but argued that the trend was towards peace and harmony between nations. ‘The workman who has equal rights as a voter… who… is a fellow owner of the common property of the nation, whose children the community educates, whose health it protects, whom it secures against injury, has a fatherland…’, and so should oppose Germany being ‘repressed in the council of the nations’. Moreover: ‘Onlya conditional right of savages to the land occupied by them can be recognised. The higher civilisation ultimately can claim a higher right.'[5]

Bernstein’s scenario of peace and free trade was an illusion, replied Kautsky. ‘Protective tariffs are easier introduced than abolished, especially in a period of such raging competition on the world market… Free trade! For the capitalists that is an ideal of the past.’ Bernstein claimed that speculation was a disease of capitalism’s infancy. But infant capitalism was being promoted across the world by the ‘overflowing capitals of the older countries… Argentinian and Transvaal speculation holds its ‘wildest orgies’ not only in Buenos Aires and Johannesburg, but equally in the venerable City of London.’

And colonialism, Kautsky insisted, was inseparable from militarism and the despoiling of colonial peoples for the benefit of ‘the modern kings of finance [who] dominate nations directly through cartels and trusts and subject all production to their power’. [6]

‘The financier,’ Kautsky went on to argue, ‘finds militarism and a strong active governmental policy, both external and internal, very agreeable. The kings of finance need not fear a strong governmental power, independent of people and Parliament, because they can rule such a power directly either as bondholders [i.e., as people who lend money to the government], or else through personal and social influences. In militarism, war and public debts they have a direct interest, not only as creditors, but also as government contractors…

‘It is wholly different with industrial capital. Militarism, war and public debts signify high taxes… War signifies besides this… a break in trade… A strong governmental power arouses anxiety in [the industrial manager] because he cannot directly control it… he inclines rather to liberalism… [But] The opposition between finance and industry continually decreases… finance ever more and more dominates industry.'[7]

Much of Kautsky’s argument was a Marxist conversion of ideas which were to be summed up with great verve by the English radical liberal, J A Hobson, in a book motivated by the Boer War (Imperialism, 1902).

‘The Imperialism of the last three decades,’ wrote Hobson, ‘is clearly condemned as a business policy, in that at enormous expense it has procured a small, bad, unsafe increase of markets, and has jeopardised the entire wealth of the nation in rousing the strong resentment of other nations.’ But imperialism continued because, ‘the business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain sectional interests.’

Arms contractors, some exporters, the shipping trade, the military, and those who wanted jobs for their sons in the Indian Civil Service, all had an interest in imperialism. But ‘the governor of the imperial engine’ was ‘the great financial houses’, which were investing abroad at such a rate.

‘The economic taproot of Imperialism’ was overproduction and glut of capital. ‘Messrs Rockefeller, Pierpoint Morgan [etc.] need Imperialism because they desire to use the public resources of their country to find profitable employment for the capital which would otherwise be superfluous.’

Imperialism was also parasitic. ‘To a larger extent every year Great Britain is becoming a nation living upon tribute from abroad, and the classes who enjoy this tribute have an ever-increasing incentive to employ the public policy, the public purse and the public force to extend the field of their private investments, and to safeguard and improve their existing investments. This is, perhaps, the most important fact in modern politics.'[8]

The overproduction and glut were due to inequality of income. The workers could not consume much because of low wages; the capitalists could not possibly use all of their huge incomes on luxuries, and thus had vast amounts left seeking investment. Balance should be restored through social reform, higher wages, more spending on public services. This would lead to more balanced national economies and less searching for markets abroad.

Kautsky saw a similar permanent glut. ‘If the capitalist mode of production raises the mass production of goods to the utmost, it also limits to a minimum the mass consumption of the workers who produce these goods, and therefore produces an ever greater surplus of goods for personal consumption…'[9] He differed from Hobson in arguing that this glut would be resolved by the collapse of capitalism and the socialist revolution, rather than by ‘social reform’, and in contending that finance-capital dominated, rather than being only a ‘sectional interest’ counterposed to ‘the business interests of the nation as a whole’.

Another difference was that Hobson used the word ‘imperialism’, where the German Marxists at this stage would use a term like ‘world policy’. ‘Imperialism’ was not special Marxist jargon: on the contrary. The Marxists took over the term from the common usage of British bourgeois politics – where some, like Rosebery, called themselves ‘Liberal Imperialists’, others, like Hobson, anti-imperialists. They used it in the same sense as common usage – the new aggressive colonial and world-economic policy of the big powers – and sought to uncover its economic roots in the rise of high finance.

Many of the core ideas of the whole literature were already expressed by 1902: militarism, colony-grabbing, conflict and an authoritarian state as the political trends; high finance, economic decadence and glut, and export of capital, as the economic underpinnings.

But what exactly was finance capital? This question was never properly resolved. And the recurrent idea of metropolitan capitalism having become ‘glutted’ would also cause confusion.

Effective demand depends not only on consumption but also on investment; and, in fact, fluctuations in demand for investment goods are generally the prime movers in crises. Demand for those investment goods can soar while final consumption stagnates – and, vice versa, the run-up to a crisis is generally a period of unusually high working-class consumption but sagging investment.

‘Overproduction’ is not a permanent condition; capitalism constantly sheds overproduction through crises and then builds it up again. The relation between supply and demand for money-capital is determined by the tempo of self-expansion of capital. It is a relation between profits accumulated from past capitalist exploitation, and profits available from present capitalist exploitation. The spasmodic nature of capitalist development means that this supply-and-demand relation is constantly falling out of balance and generating ‘surpluses’ of money-capital. But those surpluses are a function of the cycle of boom and slump, not of any absolute level at which an economy becomes ‘full up’ of capital.

The notion of an absolute level after which a capitalist economy will become permanently ‘glutted’ and awash with surplus capital is a recurrent theme in mainstream economics, from Adam Smith to Keynes. It has been attractive to socialists because it seems to show that capitalism must inevitably break down. It is misleading.

The crisis of 1907. Imperialism from the point of view of the colonies.

Events in 1907 sharpened the socialist debate on imperialism. The whole philosophy of German Social-Democracy had become increasingly based on a steady growth of Party membership, trade union membership, and votes. As capitalism developed, so the socialist movement would grow, until finally the accumulated strength of that movement would overcome capitalism, weakened by its (also growing) internal contradictions.

Then in the election of January 1907 the ruling Conservative/National Liberal bloc made imperialism the central issue. They denounced the Social Democrats, who had been criticising the German state’s brutality in its South West African colony, as unpatriotic – and reduced them from 81 parliamentary seats to 43.

For a party so convinced that the laws of social development guaranteed it steady growth, this result was a catastrophe. What had gone wrong? Too much radical agitation, said the right wing. It was no use fighting against necessary historical development, and imperialism was a necessary historical development. The Social-Democrats should vow allegiance to ‘the defence of our fatherland’. [10]

The left protested. Imperialism had attracted the middle classes, and undercut liberalism; but it would lead capitalism into convulsions, and eventually alienate the middle classes. The socialists must prepare for revolutionary upheavals by militant anti-imperialism and by distancing themselves from liberal illusions.

In August 1907 the Socialist International met in Stuttgart. The Revisionists tried to shift the movement into a more accommodating attitude towards militarism and colonialism. The full congress voted down the Revisionist draft, and condemned colonialism on principle, but only by 127 votes to 108.

In the three weeks between the Stuttgart international congress and the German party’s congress at Essen, Kautsky wrote a pamphlet on Socialism and Colonial Policy to defend the views of the left. This was the most comprehensive statement of classical Marxism on imperialism as it affected the colonies, and provides more of lasting interest than the other pamphlet (‘The Road to Power’, 1909) in which Kautsky restated his views on imperialism as a stage of capitalist decay and convulsions.

Kautsky distinguishes between three sorts of colonies. In settler colonies, or, as Kautsky calls them, ‘work colonies’, like the US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, etc., where European settlers became a new working class rather than exploiting the local workforce, colonialism undoubtedly has brought capitalist progress. There, socialist policy should be for an accommodation, to safeguard the rights and interests of the local peoples. Colonisation has in fact ‘led everywhere to the repression, and often to the complete destruction of the natives, but that was not an unavoidable result’ given the vast size and resources of the countries concerned.

But the Revisionists proclaim a policy of reforming colonialism, in practice, for quite different colonies – for colonies where the metropolis exploits local labour, with the aid of only a small band of privileged colonial settlers.

From ‘old-style exploitation colonies’ – notably Latin America under Spanish and Portuguese rule, and India in the earlier stages of colonial rule there – the colonial powers drew profit through crude plunder. To ‘new-style exploitation colonies’, capital is exported. That brings some economic development. But the countries are kept under colonial rule, to safeguard investments and also to supply the force necessary to open the way for capitalist development: colonialism, despite all the Revisionists’ argument, is inseparable from brutal force. With the export of capital, therefore, comes heavy taxation to pay for the military establishment and to pay the interest on the loans raised for building railways and so on. The taxes pauperise the peasantry and disrupt agriculture – and so, in India for example, there is ‘continual increase in famine and misery, in spite of heavy flow of English capital to India with a consequent improvement of the Indian ‘productive forces in places’.

The export of capital produces malign results even in formally independent states, for example Turkey. ‘Oriental despotism becomes horrifyingly oppressive wherever it masters the instruments of power of European civilisation, but at the same time becomes the debtor of Europe… [The resulting regime] brings to a peak the oppressive and degrading effects of capitalism, without developing any of its progressive qualities, and in the same way it develops only the oppressive characteristics of oriental despotism while destroying those aspects of it which soften its rule. It pairs despotism and capitalism in an abominable union.'[11]

Kautsky emphasises what would later be called ‘the development of underdevelopment’ in the colonies more than other classical Marxist writers. He does not deny that colonial rule can promote capitalist development, or suggest that shutting underdeveloped countries off from the outside world is better than exposing them to capitalist economic influence: but he insists that the limited and painful promotion of capitalist development by imperialism is no sufficient reason for socialists to support political oppression.

‘We can and must place no obstacle in the way of competition where the capitalist mode of production comes into free competition with backward modes of production. But the situation changes if we are asked to help the state power to fight for the interest of the capitalist class against the backward nations, and to subdue these for them with armed might, as happens in colonial policy. We must resist this with determination.’

Kautsky’s bottom line is that, ‘If the ethic of capitalism says that it is in the interests of culture and society for lower classes and nations to be ruled, the ethic of the proletariat says that precisely in the interests of culture and society the oppressed and those under tutelage must throw off all dominion.’ This remains the bottom line for revolutionary Marxists to this day.

Luxemburg and Hilferding

This analysis of capitalist development in the colonies was taken further by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1913 book, The Accumulation of Capital. She too described how the development of capitalist relations in the underdeveloped countries, and the clawing-in of their pre-capitalist economies to the capitalist world market, led the big powers to use force, seizing colonies or using the local state as, ‘a political machinery for exploiting peasant economy for capitalist purposes – the real function, this, of all Oriental states in the period of capitalist imperialism.’ It created, ‘the most peculiar combinations between the modern wage system and primitive authority in the colonial countries.'[12]

Capitalism in the colonies and semi-colonies, however, occupied only the last quarter of Luxemburg’s book. She gave pride of place to a new statement of the thesis that a permanent ‘glut’ within the advanced capitalist economies was the motor force of imperialism.

Where, Luxemburg asked, did the money come from to enable the capitalists to sell the goods in which surplus value was embodied? Or, rather, where did the ‘effective demand’ come from?

The answer, in fact, is that credit supplies the money and the effective demand is generated – erratically, with ups and downs of crisis – by the capitalists’ drive to accumulate. But Luxemburg insisted that within a pure capitalist economy there was no answer. To survive, capitalism needed non-capitalist consumers. But, as capitalism expanded across the world, the number of non-capitalist consumers decreased. Capitalism would run into bigger and bigger problems, and eventually collapse.

As the Russian Marxist Nikolai Bukharin soon pointed out, this argument is untenable. Non-capitalist consumers do not help the problem. Where do they get the money from? Non-capitalist consumers do not supply liquidity for capitalism; capitalism supplies liquidity for them.

Another extended analysis of the mechanics of imperialism was Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital, published in 1910 but mostly written in 1905.

The book starts with a long and intricate discussion on the theory of money, credit, interest and the stock exchange, aiming to show that, ‘there is a growing tendency… to concentrate all capital in the form of money capital, and to make it available to producers only through the banks… Even today, taking possession of six large Berlin banks would mean taking possession of the most important spheres of large-scale industry.’

Hilferding defines finance capital as, ‘capital in money form which is… transformed… into industrial capital.’ He adds a qualification: ‘This does not mean that the magnates of industry also become dependent on banking magnates’; rather, bank capitalists and industrial capitalists, ‘unite in close association.’

Cartels are generated because otherwise the rates of profit would be lower for giant enterprises. With modern credit it is easy to get into large-scale production; given the huge amounts of fixed capital involved it is difficult to get out. So the giant enterprises form cartels to keep their profits up. The banks help them.

Kautsky and Luxemburg, in polemic against Bernstein, had stressed the instability and fragility of cartels, but Hilferding shifts the emphasis: ‘There is a constant tendency for cartelisation to be extended.’ Cartels generate high profits, but they also restrict investment, both inside the cartel (because it restricts production) and outside (because profits are low). Cartelisation therefore gives an extra push to the export of capital.

Cartels cannot prevent crises; but they (and banks) can withstand them better than non-cartelised industries, and so crises accelerate the concentration of capital. The ‘monopolistic combines’ turn against laissez-faire. They make governments introduce tariffs, not to protect infant industries, but to secure the home market for the cartels. Those tariffs, in turn, further boost cartelisation, and give another push to the export of capital.

Since they export capital, the big powers need to clear the way for capitalism in underdeveloped countries. They force peasants to become wage-workers. ‘These violent methods are the essence of colonial policy, without which it would lose its capitalist rationale.’ But ‘capitalism itself gradually provides the subjected people with the ways and means for their own liberation’ through national independence movements. The competitive drive for economic territory will lead to war between the big capitalist states. ‘The response of the proletariat to the economic policy of finance capital – imperialism – cannot be free trade, but only socialism.’

The book was a formidable work, but not the definitive summing-up which Hilferding intended. Rather than developing a whole new theory, it pulled together ideas from writings such as Kautsky’s into a tidier structure – and often through very dubious logical deductions. For example: Hilferding argues that banks must come to dominate because the rate of interest remains stable (so he observes empirically) while the rate of profit declines (so he believes from Marx’s theory). [13] No-one seems to have taken this argument further, not even Hilferding in the later parts of the book. The argument about the hegemony of ‘six large banks’, propped up by such dubious logic, is grossly exaggerated.

The analysis moves too directly from abstract economic reasoning to current German realities and back again, so that we get a picture of finance capital in general, and of Germany in 1905-09, but not much of the general development of imperialism in a variety of countries in the whole first part of the 20th century.

World War One: Lenin and Bukharin against Kautsky

About 1912 Kautsky shifted to views on militarism and inter-capitalist conflict (though not on colonialism) very similar to those of Bernstein which he had criticised 13 years earlier. In 1914 world war erupted. Kautsky said that socialists should press the capitalist governments to make peace – for that was a better policy in the long run even from a capitalist point of view – and in the meantime each group of socialists should defend their ‘own’ country. The next phase in the classical Marxist argument was a polemic against Kautsky from the revolutionary anti-war left, by the Russian Marxists Bukharin and Lenin.

Bukharin’s book Imperialism and World Economy was written in 1915, and read by Lenin, who wrote a preface for it in December 1915. The manuscript was lost, and recovered for publication only late in 1917. Bukharin rewrote missing sections and added material from Lenin’s pamphlet. Imperialism, written in January-June 1916, and published in April 1917. Each work was therefore influenced by the other.

Lenin drew on the same concepts as Kautsky in his radical days, but crafted a sharper and tighter argument, and with militant conclusions. He built on the identification of monopolised, cartelised, organised, gigantified capital as the core of imperialism first made, I think, by Hilferding, but honed the argument done to something much crisper and more politically pointed than Hilferding’s rather sprawling volume. Like Hilferding, Lenin used the term ‘finance capital’ a lot, but finance was far less central for Lenin than it had been Kautsky at the start of the whole classical-Marxist discussion.

The immediate cause that Lenin cited for ‘the conquest policy of modern capitalist states’ was the competition between the great monopoly capitalists for raw material sources. ‘The principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism is the domination of monopolist associations of big employers. These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are captured by one group… Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee… in the struggle against competitors… The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies.’ He cited other factors, but as secondary: a struggle to seize potential sources of raw materials as well as actual ones, arenas for other monopoly business, ideological reasons, territory for emigration.

This argument obviously raises the question: could not the monopolies obtain their raw materials more cheaply through free trade? Couldn’t they settle their conflicts peacefully, without war? In replying, Lenin puts the competition for raw material sources into context as only an expression of what he considers fundamental to imperialism: the growth of monopoly capital and its inherent striving for ‘violence and reaction’.

‘Economically, the main thing in this process [of imperialism emerging] is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly.’ ‘If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.’ ‘In its economic essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism.’ ‘Domination, and the violence that is associated with it, such are the relationships that are typical of the ‘latest phase of capitalist development’; this is what inevitably had to result, and has resulted, from the formation of all-powerful economic monopolies.’ ‘Politically, imperialism is, in general, a striving towards violence and reaction.’ ‘The political superstructure of this new economy, of monopoly capitalism (imperialism is monopoly capitalism), is the change from democracy to political reaction. Democracy corresponds to free competition. Political reaction corresponds to monopoly.’ ‘The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits.'[14]

Where Lenin honed down the stock ideas of the pre-1914 left, Bukharin expanded them, taking up an idea hinted at by Rosa Luxemburg in 1899 when she wrote about ‘the contradiction between the international character of the capitalist world economy and the national character of the capitalist state…'[15] Technical progress, improved communications, larger-scale industry, and the expansionist drive of capitalism, led capitalists to make more links (trade, finance, etc., etc.) across national borders. ‘The course of economic development creates, parallel to this process [of internationalisation of capitalist interests], a reverse tendency towards the nationalisation of capitalist interests.’ ‘The process of the internationalisation of economic life can and does sharpen, to a high degree, the conflict of interests among the various ‘national’ groups of the bourgeoisie…’

Businesses were also becoming more closely linked to banks, cartels and the state in their home market. They were tied to their nation states especially by the rise of tariffs since the 1870s. Far from just protecting infant industries, the capitalist states were now protecting their most advanced (and highly monopolised) industries. The monopolies, thus assured of a safe and highly profitable home market, could then seek to conquer foreign markets by dumping (selling below cost of production).

Conflict between the two contradictory tendencies, to internationalisation and to closer ties with the nation state, produced ‘the conquest policies of modern capitalist states’. Capitalist interests wanted to expand their operations internationally. They found difficulty. They looked to their nation states for help. ‘The policy of finance capital pursues a threefold aim: first, the creation of the largest possible economic territory, which, secondly, must be protected against foreign competition by tariff walls, and thus, thirdly, must become an area of exploitation for the national monopoly companies.'[16]

Abstractly, an international agreement on trade was possible, on the lines suggested by Bernstein and Kautsky after 1912. In practice it was difficult. A stable international cartel presupposed a stable balance of economic forces and a stable balance of military forces and confidence that the stable balances would continue. So any actual progress towards a ‘world trust’ would be through wars. The ‘nationalist’ tendencies in capitalism would prevent harmonious internationalism; the ‘internationalist’ tendencies would rule out a retreat by different capitalist classes each into their own territory.

Bukharin sums up his definition of imperialism in the term finance capital, but his overall argument does not square with this summary. After repeating Hilferding’s definition of finance capital and giving a few examples, he says little more about it. In his main argument, this integration of banks and industry is only one aspect of the ‘nationalisation’ of capital; the international operations of bankers and financiers are only one aspect of the ‘internationalisation’ of capital. With Lenin, likewise, finance capital and export of capital figure as aspects of the basic development, which for him is the rise of monopoly capital. [17]

It is true that ‘high imperialism’ was based on, depended on, arose from, the development of large concentrations of highly mobile capital, ready for bold foreign ventures. In the world as it was in 1916 – where British industrial supremacy had broken down but no rival had been able to establish general supremacy, either, and where vigorous capitalist exploitation in the less-industrial countries generally required a capitalist state authority imposed from outside to establish its preconditions – those large concentrations of highly mobile capital were the vectors of imperialism. Recent research also indicates that Hobson and Kautsky were probably right about Empire bringing net gains only to some sections of the capitalist class – in Britain, lords, landowners, bankers and London merchants[18] – while for the class as a whole the extra taxes cancelled any extra gain.

But large concentrations of highly mobile capital can operate under different regimes, as since the mid-1980s. The structure of the world economy, rather than just the growth of big capitalist money-fortunes in a few countries, was the fundamental basis of ‘high imperialism’. Moreover, the later twentieth century proves that ‘monopoly capitalism’ – a capitalism dominated by huge corporations – tends to divide the world into territories policed and tariff-walled by rival states only under certain conditions. Under other conditions the huge transnational corporations desire free trade. Kautsky’s and Luxemburg’s stress on the fragility and instability of cartels has turned out more accurate, in the long run, than Hilferding’s scenario of ever-more-cartelised, ever-more-‘organised’, capitalism. Monopoly is not necessarily the direct opposite of competition. Huge corporations may well operate fiercer competition than the more numerous and smaller-scale capitalists of ‘competitive capitalism’. (Fiercer because the range of markets the competitors can reach is wider, and their ability to respond rapidly to each other’s moves is greater: for example, a retail food trade dominated by a few big supermarket chains may see sharper competition than one shaped by thousands of small shops).

The wartime political struggle gave Bukharin’s and Lenin’s pamphlets greater vividness and focus than the pre-1914 literature. As polemics they were devastating; as sharpened summaries of the Marxist literature, they stand up very well to later bourgeois-academic criticisms. [19] Their adequacy as textbooks for the study of imperialism across the whole of the twentieth century – which is not the purpose for which they were written – is another matter. Their summary statements on finance capital and monopoly capital, if cited as laws for the broad sweep of history, are wrong.

Bukharin created a rich and flexible theoretical framework, in which he could integrate many of the ideas of the previous Marxist literature, while he explicitly rejected the false starts like the notion of the permanent glut of capital. Kautsky’s, Luxemburg’s and Hilferding’s ideas about the roots of colonial conquest in the logic of capitalist ‘primitive accumulation’ in the colonies (rather than just impulses from the metropolis) – ideas which indicated that colonial rule would be difficult and maybe even too expensive to retain once capitalist development in the colonies had gone a certain distance – could also have been integrated into the framework; Bukharin, however, marred his argument by schematic and mechanical deductions from his basic framework. His schematism led him to present a world of militarised state-capitalist monoliths as an irreversibly established fact, rather than a one tendency among others in a complex whole, and to argue that national self-determination had thus been made ‘economically impossible’.

Lenin, too, took up the argument pioneered by Kautsky and Luxemburg against Bernstein, about advanced capitalism destroying rather than boosting bourgeois liberalism. He argued that an economic trend (the growth of monopolies) was mirrored in politics (‘violence and reaction’). But all the classic Marxists – Bukharin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Kautsky, and Lenin too – largely assumed the connection between political facts (anti-liberal moves by capitalist governments, which they campaigned against as their daily political business) and the economic trends, rather than proving it. Lenin barely mentions the economic role of the state in Imperialism; conversely, he mentions imperialism only in passing (though frequently) in his pamphlet ‘The State and Revolution’, written the following year.

The argument was so sketchy, no doubt, because the Marxists saw it as less a big theoretical statement than a matter-of-fact summary from everyday observation of bourgeois politics in the period before the First World War. Nineteenth-century free trade individualism was being challenged in the name of Empire, Nation, State and Race. The new Imperialists might propose bureaucratic welfare measures, or they might be bleakly conservative; but for sure they stood for a stronger state than the old liberals, whether flint-faced free-traders or generous-spirited reformers. Luxemburg and the younger Kautsky, Bukharin and Lenin, were first and foremost concerned to analyse immediate events and refute bourgeois liberal optimism, not to write textbooks for the whole evolution of state forms in the 20th century.

In fact the forms of bourgeois parliamentary democracy were somewhat extended, not cut back, in the period leading up to the First World War. The whole history of the century indicates that monopolistic (dictatorial) political regimes and colonial empires do not necessarily develop in parallel with the concentration of capital into larger units, at least, not short of the full concentration of capital in the hands of the state as in the USSR.

Lenin – despite summary statements implying otherwise – did allow for much more complexity in the relation between economics and politics than the other classical Marxists. ‘At the same time,’ he emphasised, ‘capitalism engenders democratic aspirations in the masses, creates democratic institutions, aggravates the antagonism between imperialism’s denial of democracy and the mass striving for democracy.’ ‘Imperialism does not halt the development of capitalism and the growth of democratic tendencies among the mass of the population. On the contrary, it accentuates the antagonism between their democratic aspirations and the anti-democratic tendency of the trusts.’ Lenin defined colony-grabbing as only one, auxiliary, method of imperialism – with the implication that in different circumstances different methods could predominate. He ridiculed Bukharin’s crude argument that, ‘imperialist annexation is only a case of the general capitalist tendency towards centralisation of capital.’ ‘Everyone would laugh… if, parallel with the law that small-scale production is ousted by large-scale production, there were presented another ‘law’… of small states being ousted by big ones.'[37]

There was a problem, however, I think, with the grid within which even Lenin saw the question of bourgeois state forms. At one pole there was Jacksonian democracy – something like the early 19th century USA, minus slavery and the Indian wars – a parliamentary republic based on small proprietors, with a minimal permanent state machine, no standing army, wide civil rights, etc. At the other pole was Prussian absolutism – a big military machine and state bureaucracy, topped by a monarchy, with restricted civil rights and the most limited forms of parliamentarism. All other state forms (so the implicit assumption ran) were to be found somewhere on the scale between those two poles. Monopoly capitalism required a sizeable state machine, and the big capitalist interests would often bypass parliament to deal with state officials directly. It meant a move away from Jacksonian democracy – and therefore necessarily towards Prussian absolutism.

The modern bourgeois democratic state machine makes the Prussian state of Lenin’s time look a very skimpy amateur outfit. Yet it has parliamentary democracy (hollowed-out but still not meaningless) and relatively wide civil rights. It is not somewhere on a spectrum between Jacksonian democracy and Prussian absolutism; it represents movement in a different direction. So does the modern fascist state.

‘Leninism’ made dogma

After Lenin’s death, the Stalinists constructed a chopped-up orthodoxy of ‘Leninism’, which, by sheer weight of literature and resources, shaped left wing thinking way outside the Stalinist parties.

That chopped-up orthodoxy has deformed understanding in several ways. First: for most readers, only Lenin’s pamphlet was available as a summary of the classic Marxist theory of imperialism. Bukharin’s, Hilferding’s, Kautsky’s, and Luxemburg’s writings were little published and little read. [20] Secondly: Lenin’s pamphlet did not cover what became the hottest question about imperialism, its relation to economic development in the Third World. To fill the gap in ‘Leninist’ theory, phrases from the pamphlet which looked as if they might be about that were taken as the ‘Leninist’ line! Thirdly, the Stalinists simply distorted Lenin sometimes. Fourthly, the theory got distorted ‘honestly’ by statements about tendencies being taken as a comprehensive account, without regard to counter-tendencies. And fifthly, or so I shall argue, some real weaknesses in Lenin’s account provided fertile ground for confusion.

Export of capital

It became commonly argued that Lenin had defined imperialism essentially as ‘export of capital’. In fact, export of capital, in Lenin’s theory, was one manifestation of the structurehe was analysing, not its main moving force. Many of the powers that Lenin recognised as ‘imperialist’ were net importers of capital, such as Tsarist Russia. The ‘misunderstanding’ here may have originated as a doctrinal device to exculpate the USSR and simultaneously to justify autarky as the highest ‘anti-imperialist’ policy. In fact, Stalinist imperialism corresponded more fully to Lenin’s theoretical model (monopoly in economics, violence and reaction in politics) than anything in the West, or even anything that existed in 1916, though it was not ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ but rather, in the long view, a dead-end episode within the capitalist epoch.

Parasitism, decay, and finance-capital

Imperialism, wrote Lenin, was ‘parasitic’, ‘decaying’, and ‘moribund’ capitalism. He was restating Kautsky’s ideas of 1899-1909. In so far as he was just doing that, he was trapped by the mechanical alternatives of pre-1914 ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ – either capitalism was progressing, and its new developments, like imperialism, should therefore be supported, or it was plunging to collapse – and within those false alternatives he was plainly wrong. Eighty years later, capitalism has grown, not collapsed.

Many passages in Lenin’s pamphlet suggest that imperialism meant stagnation. Yet even in Imperialism Lenin indicated that he had a more dialectical, less mechanical, view. ‘It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not… On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital (Britain).'[21]

Elsewhere Lenin noted: ‘History does not stand still even in times of counter-revolution.'[22] The productive forces were sufficiently developed for the European capitalist classes to be overthrown in 1917-23; poor working class political leadership saved them. Capitalism went through 20 years of catastrophes, and survived again. History did not stand still. Capitalism reorganised. It progressed, in its own way. It created new working classes, allowed workers to raise their standards of living and education, developed new technologies. There was a new ‘golden age of capitalism’ – golden for the capitalists, though, as always, muck and bronze for the workers.

To recognise this is not to slacken our fight against capitalism. As Lenin put it: ‘Can anyone in his senses deny that Bismarckian Germany and her social laws are ‘better’ than Germany before 1848?.. Did the German Social-Democrats… vote for Bismarck’s reforms on these grounds?'[23] To discard mechanical notions of the ‘epoch of decay’ is, however, essential if we are to understand realistically the adversities and the prospects of the socialist movement, prospects which may be changing much for the better as we enter a new, stormier era. There have been several ‘epochs of imperialism’, not one.

We should also discard Lenin’s confused link, following Kautsky, between ‘decay’ and ‘finance capital’. In his analysis, Lenin has two completely different concepts of finance capital, incoherently combined. He writes of ‘the several hundred kings of finance who reign over modern capitalist society’. Elsewhere, however, it is a matter of ‘the extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by ‘clipping coupons’, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness.’? So which is it? Are the finance capitalists the masters of large-scale industry, the directors of the economy – or people like the rentier who ‘if he speaks of work at all means the ‘work’ of picking flowers or calling for a ticket at the box office of the opera.'[24]

The same trends in capitalism can generate both close connections between the banks and industry (finance capital in Hilferding’s sense), and agrowing mass of rentiers. They can generate both sorts of ‘finance capitalists’. But they are different groups. In Lenin’s derivation of the parasitic character of imperialist capitalism he mixed them up. ‘Capitalism has now singled out a handful… of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world simply by ‘clipping coupons’.’ ‘More and more prominently there emerges, as one of the tendencies of imperialism, the creation of the ‘rentier state’, the usurers’ state, in which the bourgeoisie to an ever-increasing degree lives on the proceeds of capital exports and by ‘clipping coupons’.’ ‘The export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism, still more completely isolates the rentiers from production and sets the seal of parasitism on the whole country…'[25]

Rentier income was indeed a major feature of the great capitalist states before the First World War. In Britain nearly a half of all property income in 1913 was rentier income from abroad, and nearly half of that from the Empire. [26] But Lenin’s argument was warped by a slippage from one sense of ‘finance capital’ to another: imperialism was first characterised as the dominion of the ‘kings of finance’ who ran industry and the state, and then identified with the dominion of the rentiers who concerned themselves with flowers and the opera. And the dominion of the rentiers meant stagnation and decay. [27]

‘Capitalism, which began its development with petty usury capital, is ending its development with gigantic usury capital… With a stationary population, and stagnant industry, the ‘country’ can grow rich by usury.'[28] Lenin was referring to France; but he also endorsed Hobson’s vision: ‘The greater part of Western Europe might then assume the appearance and character already exhibited by tracts of country in the South of England… little clusters of wealthy aristocrats drawing dividends and pensions from the Far East, with… professional retainers and tradesmen… personal servants and workers in the transport trade and in the final stages of production of the more perishable goods; all the main arterial industries would have disappeared, the staple foods and manufactures flowing in as tribute from Asia and Africa.'[29]

This perspective was in truth more speculative and fantastic even than Kautsky’s peaceful ‘ultra-imperialism’. If the centre of productive industry should shift to Asia and Africa, which it has not to this day, by what power would effete Europe prevent the Asian and African capitalists from taking possession and denying Europe its ‘dividends and pensions’?

Lenin was highlighting a tendency and painting it in bright colours for polemical effect; we need not imagine that he had forgotten about the counter-tendencies. Nonetheless, the chain of argument from imperialism to the kings of finance, to the rentiers, to parasitism, had grievous effects. It enabled later writers to stamp ‘Leninist’ authority on arguments about the permanent ‘glut of capital’ and about the capitalist development of poorer countries being impossible under imperialism.

‘Dependency theory’

‘Dependency’ theory dates back to Paul Baran’s book The Political Economy of Growth (New York, 1957). Third World countries were underdeveloped, argued Baran, mainly because of parasitism within the Third World countries and a drain of surplus to the advanced countries. The answer was for those forces seeking development in Third World countries to follow the model provided by the USSR – expropriate the parasitic old property-owning classes, centralise resources in the hands of the state, cut down economic relations with the rest of the world to a minimum.

Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and others built on Baran’s analysis, developing the idea that imperialism created distorted, stunted, dependent structures in Third World countries. Though heavily discredited by recent facts, such as the capitalist development of Asia’s Pacific Rim, this ‘dependency theory’ remains very influential on the left, especially in pseudo-Trotskyist restatements. [30]

This doctrine (‘import of revenue’, so to speak) had obvious differences even from the conventional interpretation of Lenin (‘export of capital’), but was assimilated to it via Lenin’s speculations about metropolitan capital ‘growing rich by usury’ or ‘tribute from Asia and Africa’ and by highlighting cases where a limited ‘export of capital’ (metropolitan investment in a poor country) produced a continuing ‘import of revenue’ to the metropolis without local reinvestment or new investment.

All the classical Marxists believed that capitalism tended to spread capitalist development across the world: arguments such as Kautsky’s of 1907 about imperialism sustaining pre-capitalist structures were within that framework. Lenin, as we have seen, even gave credence to Hobson’s far-fetched speculation about all industrial development shifting to Asia and Africa.

In Imperialism, Lenin specifically argued against the notion of a fixed division between industrialised and non-industrialised regions (a notion which, by a logic which we need not bother to go into here, was part of Kautsky’s new view on imperialism). Imperialism was about seizing not only agrarian regions, but economic territory in general. Kautsky’s mistake was not innocent: German imperialism, the imperialism that it was his special duty to fight, had among its prime targets for conquest the industrialised areas of Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine. Also, imperialism was not only ‘a striving for annexations’. Germany’s immediate aim was not so much more colonies, but economic domination in Central Europe and in the Middle East.

And Lenin stressed how the relative economic rank of nations was changing. ‘Capitalism is growing with the greatest rapidity in the colonies and the overseas countries. Among the latter, new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan).'[31] Bukharin agreed. ‘The industrialisation of the agrarian and semi-agrarian countries proceeds at an unbelievably quick tempo.'[32]

Crucial to the ‘dependency’ framework is the notion that the essence of world capitalism is the relation between two relatively homogeneous blocs, centre and periphery. The focus of study is on factors keeping the hierarchy of capitalist economies fixed, keeping centres central and peripheries peripheral. The classical Marxists, on the contrary, focussed on the fluidity and changeability of the hierarchical relations between capitalist economies.

Andre Gunder Frank, developing Baran’s theory with great verve, argued in his classic Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: ‘External monopoly has always resulted in the expropriation (and consequent unavailability to Chile [and the same argument goes for other underdeveloped countries]) of a significant part of the economic surplus produced by Chile and its appropriation by another part of the world capitalist system… [an] exploitative relation… in chain-like fashion extends the capitalist link between the capitalist world and national metropolises to the regional centres (part of whose surplus they appropriate), and from these to local centres, and so on to large landowners or merchants who expropriate surplus from small peasants and tenants, and sometimes even from these latter to landless labourers exploited by them in turn. At each step along the way, the relatively few capitalists above exercise monopoly power over the many below…Thus at each point, the international, national, and local capitalist system generates economic development for the few and underdevelopment for the many’.

Frank presents this chain of metropolis-satellite, or centre-periphery, relations as the major defining feature of capitalism, one that shows Latin America to have been integrated into a capitalist world system since about the 16th century. Imperialism, for him, therefore, is more or less synonymous with capitalism of anysort, advanced or not, way back into the 16th century.

The image of surplus being drained by a million threads from periphery to centre is a powerful one. But it is not a very satisfactory explanation of development/underdevelopment. The capitalist/worker relation, for Frank, is an archetypal ‘centre/periphery’, or (the same thing in Frank’s picture) capital/’many’, relation. Workers are dissolved into the ‘many’, the specific logic of wage-labour of capital is dissolved into the general picture of the plunder of the many by the few. But the capitalist/worker relation develops both poles of itself – the capitalists to riches, the workers to concentration, education, and self-confidence – rather than ‘underdeveloping’. That development, with its revolutionary potential, is obscured by Frank’s analysis, in favour of the stance of a well-wisher denouncing the helpless ‘underdevelopment’ of the ‘many’.

Put it another way. What happens to the surplus when it finally drains through to the metropolis of metropolises – some US multinational HQ? It is not simply consumed by the bosses of the multinational. No: they seek to expand their capital still further – i.e. to develop the whole web of relations that brings them the surplus. The capitalists’ lust for profit, their desire and ability to siphon revenue to themselves, is no explanation for underdevelopment in Latin America. If local opportunities for investment are the best going, then lust for profit will make the most Yanqui of capitalists want to reinvest revenue in Latin America rather than holding it in the USA. Conversely, if opportunities for investment are better elsewhere, then the most national of capitalists will direct their funds to the other place rather than investing in Latin America.

In reality investment patterns are not simply determined by profit maximisation in this way. The classic case for ‘drain of surplus’ is where foreign interests own a plantation or a mine in the underdeveloped country. The foreign capitalists are not very interested in diversifying into other industries in the underdeveloped country; the necessary infrastructure, trained workforce etc., do not exist, and the home market in the underdeveloped country itself is small.

They are not even very interested in investing in new technology in the plantation or mine: abundant supplies of cheap labour make it unnecessary. They prefer to bring their money home to the advanced capitalist country and invest it there. When the underdeveloped country takes over the plantation or mine, however, it is likely to use the profits to build up infrastructure and heavy industry in the underdeveloped country. Here the ‘drain of surplus’ is what is to be explained, not the explanation. It is an important effect of ‘underdevelopment’, not the cause. Such a drain existed from many ex-colonial countries in the 1950s, when direct investment from the richer capitalist economies into those countries was running at low levels, and again in the first period of the great ‘Third World debt crisis’ which started with Mexico’s default in 1982. In the 1990s, many ex-colonial countries show large net inflows of foreign capital. The ‘drain’ is not a fixed economic law.

Robert Brenner has summarised the political implications of the ‘drain’ theory. ‘So long as incorporation into the world market/world division of labour is seen automatically to breed underdevelopment, the logical antidote to capitalist underdevelopment is not socialism, but autarky. So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the ‘third world’, the primary opponents must be core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside – not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie. In fact, the danger here is double-edged: on the one hand. a new opening to the ‘national bourgeoisie’; on the other hand, a false strategy for anti-capitalist revolution… Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois revolution…’ (‘The Origins of Capitalist Development’, in New Left Review 104, p.91-2).

In the periphery/centre view, nationalist-autarkic moves by the bourgeoisie of the underdeveloped countries appear as limited, initial forms of the struggle of the periphery against centre – which struggle, of course, ultimately, fully developed, is the struggle for socialism. It thus necessarily smears over class distinctions. Two Argentine Marxists have summed up the problems here:

‘The theory of ‘neo-colonies’… seeks to equate the financial and diplomatic dependence of politically independent countries and of semi-colonies by giving overwhelming priority to certain economic features in particular the role of direct foreign investment by transnational companies. Direct foreign investment, associated with other forms of ‘penetration’, is supposed to turn the different countries into semi-colonies, although it is never clear which are to be included in this definition. (Would it apply, for example, to countries like South Africa, Canada or Spain, or only to ‘Third World’ countries?) According to this line of reasoning, bourgeois nation states would be progressive and anti-imperialist merely by opposing foreign investment, increasing customs duties and reducing the balance of external trade, or by linking themselves economically to the ‘Socialist Bloc’. Marxism, however, regards such ‘anti-imperialism’ and such ‘defence’ of the principle of national self-determination as nothing more than an attempt to cover up competitive manoeuvres by capitals of different national bases, particularly by ‘weak’ monopoly capitals.’ (Alejandro Dabat and Luis Lorenzano, Argentina: The Malvinas and the End of Military Rule, p.8).

Frank developed his theories in passionate and angry opposition to the Latin American Communist Parties and their strategy of supporting the nationalist bourgeoisie: ‘The historical mission and role of the bourgeoisie in Latin America – which was to accompany and to promote the underdevelopment of its society and of itself – is finished. In Latin America as elsewhere, the role of promoting historical progress has now fallen to the masses of the people alone… To applaud and in the name of the people even to support the bourgeoisie in its already played-out role on the stage of history is treacherous or treachery. ‘ (Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America). Yet he feels compelled, again and again, to endorse nationalist segments of the bourgeoisie as ‘progressive’. For example this comment on Brazil before the 1964 coup: ‘The progressive forces, including Brazilian nationalist business interests, had offered (president) Goulart an alternative… (but) Goulart again tried to put off demands of the progressive forces’. (Underdevelopment or Revolution, p.346-7)

As Anthony Brewer points out, Frank ends up arguing for socialism in a spirit very different from Lenin – not by identifying a revolutionary class that can create it, but by indicting capitalism for its lack of capitalist development.

‘The classical Marxists assumed that each country must go through successive stages of development; the capitalist stage performed the historic task of creating a proletariat and laying the material basis for the succeeding stage of socialism. Lenin and Trotsky argued that the bourgeoisie in Russia (then a relatively backward country) was too weak to carry through the political tasks of the bourgeois revolution, so that the proletariat had to take the lead and could then carry straight on to the socialist revolution. The evolution of a relatively backward country differed from that of the more advanced centres. This argument, however still presupposes the existence of a proletariat adequate to the task, and thus a certain degree of capitalist development. However, in the first half of the 20th century, there were few signs of capitalist development in underdeveloped countries, and many Marxists came to argue a position almost diametrically opposed to that of the classics. Where it had been argued that capitalist development had to create first the possibility of a socialist revolution, it was now argued that the absence of capitalist development made socialist revolution necessary. Frank is the leading exponent of this view, summed up in the title of one of his books, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution. This shift of perspective entails a shift to a more voluntaristic concept of politics and to treating the peasantry or lumpen-proletariat, rather than the industrial proletariat, as the revolutionary class. This trend in political thinking was encouraged by the success of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions.’ (Marxist Theories of Imperialism, p.286).

The ‘end of imperialism’ – version 1

‘The need to export capital,’ wrote Lenin, ‘arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become ‘overripe’ and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for ‘profitable’ investment.’ ‘A prodigious increase of capital, which, as it were, overflows the brim, flows abroad, etc.'[33]

This is an ‘underconsumptionist’ argument. It is strange to find it in Lenin’s writings: in the debates on capitalist development in Russia he had been the most vehement anti-‘underconsumptionist’. And Bukharin explicitly rejected the ‘glut’ theory. ‘Not the impossibility of doing business at home, but the race for higher rates of profit is the motive power of world capitalism. Even present-day ‘capitalist plethora’ is no absolute limit.'[34]

But there it is, maybe adapted from the younger Kautsky, and gaining impact because of its connection with the picture of a ‘decaying’ capitalism run by a gang of parasitic financiers. And in some hands this error, or careless piece of writing, became the core of ‘the Leninist theory’ of imperialism.

In some circles, the idea of the ‘glut of capital’ led to the conclusion that decolonisation would mean metropolitan capitalism choking to death on its uninvestible riches. Thus the Second World Congress of the Fourth International argued that the loss of colonies for Europe removed all chance of regaining ‘even the pre-war [i.e., 1930s!] economic equilibrium’. Michel Pablo noted that ‘the colonial base of the capitalist system is in the process of being broken up’. The colonial revolution had ‘already, for a start, brought European capitalism to its knees’. ‘Thus American imperialism, which is now glutted with productive forces, is obliged to direct its surplus into artificial markets: arms spending, and ‘overseas aid’.’ James P Cannon put it this way: ‘The world market… no longer offers an adequate outlet for America’s glut of capital and surplus goods.'[35]

Michael Kidron of the International Socialists (now SWP), on the other hand, used the same assumptions to argue that the post-1950 metropolitan capitalist prosperity meant the end of imperialism[36]. Imperialism had been the ‘highest stage but one’ of capitalism. The SWP has since flipped over from that view to something much more like standard Stalinised-Leninism, but at the time Kidron’s argument was an organic part of a world-picture also involving state capitalism in the USSR and the ‘permanent arms economy’ in the West.

Arms spending was draining away the glut of capital, so the basic economic mechanism of imperialism no longer operated. The demand created by the state through the ‘permanent arms economy’ filled the ‘underconsumptionist gap’ supposedly caused by workers not being able to consume enough. Export of capital was no longer needed to provide a ‘drain’ for excess capital from the advanced countries. The Third World was also less and less important to the advanced capitalist countries as a sourceof raw materials, because of new technologies, use of substitutes, etc. In short, imperialist exploitation of the Third World was no longer necessary for the West, and that explained decolonisation. However, Third World countries were left crushed and battered in the world of military competition between nation-states. ‘The societies maimed and shattered by the imperialist explosion of the last century are again being maimed and shattered – by the growing economic isolationism of the west (an imperialist implosion as it were)…’ (Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War, p.10)

The conclusions were similar to those of the standard ‘centre-periphery’ argument on the underdevelopment of the ‘periphery’ – with one modification. Rather than China, Cuba, etc., being pointed to as examples of development to contrast with the general underdevelopment, it was argued that they shared in the underdevelopment.

Kidron complemented his scenario of hopeless economic stagnation in the ex-colonial world with a rejection (more or less out of hand, appealing to the authority of references to Trotsky) of the notion of bourgeois revolutions in the Third World. Dead end on all fronts, short of an international socialist revolution centred in the advanced countries! The political problems were expressed most dramatically in a celebrated controversy of the 1960s. Commenting on the ex-Trotskyist LSSP’s participation in a bourgeois coalition government in Sri Lanka, Kidron deplored the LSSP’s action but said that unfortunately there was nothing much that socialists could do in countries like Sri Lanka anyway. He had with him the logic of Tony Cliff’s argument on the USSR, which said that ‘state capitalism’ there, in Cliff’s version, was the most progressive development possible short of international socialist revolution – even the Left Opposition’s programme could have led to nothing better – but ultimately, in the night of imperialism, no progress matters much anyway: ‘the development of the means of production in a backward country cannot be progressive when on a world scale humanity is ripe for socialism’ (see ‘Cliff’s state capitalism revisited’, by Sean Matgamna, Workers’ Liberty 56).

Kidron’s argument falls down on several grounds. Firstly, as already argued, imperialism is not fundamentally about providing a ‘drain’ for superfluous capital. Secondly, the ‘functionalist’ argument that economic activities must happen if they are ‘necessary for capitalism’, and not happen if they are not ‘necessary for capitalism’, is false in general. A capitalist world is shaped by capitalists acting on capitalist interests – with deflections and detours imposed by workers pursuing workers’ interests – not by some superhuman force called ‘the needs of the system’.

Kidron’s argument also fell down on straightforward factual grounds. The major trend has been ‘globalisation’, or at least internationalisation, of capital, rather than ‘growing economic isolationism’, and capitalist development in the ex-colonial states has not been squeezed into nothingness.

The ‘end of imperialism’ – versions 2 and 3

So drastic was the factual falsity of Kidron’s argument that another ‘end of imperialism’ argument soon developed which was its exact contrary. For Kidron, imperialism had ended because of ‘not enough’ capital in the Third World; for Bill Warren, because of ‘too much’ capital there.

Warren’s first article, in 1973, presented facts on industrial development in the Third World. Despite some exaggerations, I think it was useful in forcing Marxists to re-think their ‘conventional wisdom’ of the time about the supposed impossibility of serious capitalist development in the ex-colonies. But further theorisations by Warren – a member of the British Communist Party and then of a Stalinist-Kautskyist sect, the British and Irish Communist Organisation – became a simple inversion of ‘dependency’, or ‘centre-periphery’, theory. He became completely trapped by the ‘orthodoxy’ he was arguing against.

On point after point he says no where the ‘centre-periphery’ theorists say yes, yes where they say no. Example: ‘centre-periphery’ theorists say that colonialism hindered the development of the colonies, also that the removal of formal colonial rule has not removed those hindrances. Warren replies that colonialism helped the development of the colonies – and that the end of colonialism helped even more! Example: ‘centre-periphery’ theorists attack the social and cultural effects of colonialism and imperialism. Warren responds with a vigorous defence of the historically progressive role of bourgeois culture – yet has little but scorn for a major example of that progressive role, the self-assertion of the ex-colonial peoples through bourgeois national struggles. Example: ‘centre-periphery’ theorists say that imperialism generates underdevelopment – using ‘underdevelopment’ as a term to cover both lack of capitalist industry, and unevenness of industrial development, and mass misery within that development. Warren replies that imperialism generates development – meaning growth of capitalism, and increasing evenness of development, and increased social welfare.

The ‘centre-periphery’ theorists in some ways parallel the Narodniks in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and Warren parallels the Legal Marxists. Like them he paints the development of capitalism in the most glowing colours, not only recognising it (as Marxists must) but effectively praising and advocating it. Everything that points to capitalist progress in the Third World is played up, the other side of the picture is played down. For example: Warren notes briefly that ‘Agriculture has failed…’ in the Third World (Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism, p.236), but rapidly moves on to speculations about favourable prospects for Third World agriculture in the future. If you read closely, there are qualifications and reservations. But the main drift of Warren’s argument is that the world is moving towards more even development, with imperialist relations of economic domination being weakened. In fact capitalist development is becoming more uneven. The economic domination of big states, international banks, and transnational corporations is not weakening.

The ‘end of imperialism’ – version 3

A more recent argument for the ‘end of imperialism’ is, so to speak, neither ‘not enough’ capital in the Third World, nor ‘too much’ there, but rather ‘too much’ capital nowhere in particular. The argument acknowledges the continuing or growing power of multinational banks and corporations, indeed highlights it, but argues that they have become increasing footloose, increasingly free of ties to particular states, and so the actions of the big capitalist states are increasingly ‘uncoupled from’ and secondary to the actions of particular capitalist interests. Since (so the argument goes) imperialism means actions by big capitalist states to impose the interests of their ‘own’ particular capitalists on other states, it is obsolete. So argue such writers as David Becker and his colleagues in their book Postimperialism, and David Lockwood in the Australian Marxist journal Reconstruction, 1994.

In the first place, most imperialist state actions in the heyday of ‘high imperialism’ were not directly linked with the interests of a particular business, either. In an influential polemic against what he understands as ‘Marxist theory of imperialism’, D K Fieldhouse writes that the theory ‘alleges that partition [of the world] was due to economic necessity. The industrialisation of continental Europe and the revived protectionism of the last quarter of the century made tropical colonies necessary as never before to provide markets for manufactures, fields for the investment of surplus capital, and an assured source of raw materials. Colonies were deliberately acquired to fill those needs.’ In fact, ‘remarkably few colonies were annexed as the result of a deliberate assessment of their economic potential by an imperial power… In short, the modern empires lacked rationality and purpose: they were the chance products of complex historical circumstances.’ (The Colonial Empires, London 1966, p.207, 239).

But everything is a ‘product of complex historical circumstances’. Kautsky, Luxemburg and Hilferding had demonstrated the roots of colonial conquest in the logic of capitalist exploitation in the colonies, not just in a ‘rationality’ of metropolitan-capitalist deliberations. And Lenin pointed to politically or ideologically motivated colony-grabbing and ‘the conquest of territor[ies], not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary…’ (Imperialism, p.79, 80, 86).

It is true that world capitalism’s new ‘regime’ since the mid-1980s has combined great accumulations of highly mobile capital with more-or-less free trade, and that in this regime imperialist interventions, whether by the IMF in Indonesia or Brazil or by the US military in the Gulf, are on the whole more likely to be about securing the general conditions for profit-making by the big transnational capitalist interests than to resemble the mid-century ‘sending in the Marines’ by the USA to keep small Central American countries safe for the United Fruit Corporation. But, overall, the ‘post-imperialist’ writers exaggerage the ‘uncoupling’ (see ‘Globalisation and its discontents’, Workers’ Liberty 50-51). And anyway, why call this the end of imperialism rather than a new regime of imperialism? What conceptual precision is gained by insisting that the Gulf War, or the actions of the IMF, are not imperialist? The argument that ‘imperialism’ is defined by (some rehash or other of) Lenin’s picture of the world in 1916 is no better when used to claim that the world today is not imperialist than when used to insist that, being imperialist, it must correspond to that ‘Leninist’ picture.

Imperialism = advanced capitalism?

Against Bukharin’s over-schematic argument that imperialism makes national self-determination utopian, Lenin emphasises that colony-grabbing was only one form of imperialism. ‘It would be the greatest mistake, however, to believe that the trusts cannot establish their monopoly by purely economic methods… Big finance capital of one country can always buy up competitors in another, politically independent country and constantly does so. Economically, this is fully achievable. Economic ‘annexation’ is fully ‘achievable’ without political annexation and is widely practised’ (‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’) But Lenin’s argument is not that there is no worthwhile difference between political annexation (conquest) and economic ‘annexation’. On the contrary, he is claiming that national self-determination is a substantial, worthwhile, and progressive demand, even though political independence cannot abolish the economic domination of big capital. Lenin would also argue elsewhere, following Kautsky, that political independence would boost ex-colonial nations’ scope to develop capitalistically. ‘In Asia… the conditions for the most complete development of commodity production, for the freest, widest and most rapid growth of capitalism, have been created only in Japan, i.e., only in an independent national state.’ (‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’).

We distort take Lenin’s argument about colony-grabbing being only one form of imperialism if we take to mean that monopoly capitalism equals imperialism by definition, whatever it does, and whether it grabs colonies or not makes no real difference.

‘Imperialism’, as shown above, was a coinage not of Marxists, still less of Lenin specifically, but of British bourgeois politics. By asserting ‘imperialism is monopoly capitalism’, Lenin meant neither to proclaim an esoteric language – ‘For me and all my disciples, imperialism will henceforth not have its profane meaning, but instead be synonymous with monopoly capitalism’ – nor to propose a technical definition of the sort made by mathematicians, or even by Marx in his theory of value. He meant: ‘The traits commonly recognised as ‘imperialism’ – a world of competition for territory between colonial empires or spheres of influence, dominated by a few great powers – are not aberrations but organically connected with the development of capitalism into monopoly forms’ (or, at least, with the particular development of capitalism into monopoly forms characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th century).

By Stalinised ‘Leninism’, however, the theory of imperialism was converted into a set of axiomatic equations: advanced capitalism equals domination of monopolies and finance-capital, equals imperialism, equals a push for colony-grabbing, equals ‘moribund and decaying capitalism’ in the metropolis and blight in the periphery, equals the dead-end of capitalist progress.

This turned ‘anti-imperialism’ into a garbled global version of the 1950s-1960s European Communist Party line of ‘the anti-monopoly alliance’, which defined the biggest, most advanced, capitalist interests as ipso facto the worst. Advanced capitalism was bad not so much because it was capitalist as because it was advanced. Being advanced made it, by definition, imperialist. Stalinism, or Islamic fundamentalism, should be supported because, despite their sincerely-hated crimes, they could not fail to represent progress as against the absolute dead-end denoted by imperialism. For example, in the arguments over the South Atlantic war of 1982, some of those Marxists who wanted to support Argentina would argue that the barbaric character of General Galtieri’s regime there was proof positive of their case, since it demonstrated that Argentina was non-imperialist, or in other words ‘semi-colonial’. Bourgeois democracy was a mark of imperialist privilege. We should support Argentina not despite it being a brutal dictatorship, but because it was a brutal dictatorship!

In this vision advanced-capitalist intervention anywhere is ipso facto colonialist, or at least ‘neo-colonialist’ or ‘semi-colonialist’. Third World states are ‘neo-colonies’ or ‘semi-colonies’ even after political independence, unless they cut all relations with advanced metropolitan capital by means of Stalinist-type autarky. Conquest and colonial oppression by Third World or Stalinist states are somehow only venial, not mortal sins, since by definition they can not be imperialist.

A justified desire for vehemence against the claims by the Western big capital that its dominion was ‘the free world’ encouraged these ideas. All of them have some recognisable origin in Lenin’s text. But the original ideas have had their context stripped away, or a polemical one-sidedness heightened, so much as to falsify them radically.

On the evidence of the whole 20th century, ‘monopoly’ (the domination of big concentrations) in capitalist economies does not necessarily mean ‘monopolistic’ structures all through (cartels, walled-off trade blocs, bureaucratic dictatorships in place of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, colonial empires). The consolidation of capital into giant concerns can sharpen market competition (there is now a substantial Marxist literature on this point). And giant capital can quite well live with, and adapt for its own purposes, both parliamentary democracy within nations and ‘bourgeois democracy’ (independence of small nations, free trade) internationally. In fact, as Lenin suggested in State and Revolution, this ‘bourgeois-democratic’ order is – in general, all else being equal – the best (cheapest, most reliable) for capital.

Big capital has not become less predatory. But when ex-colonial peoples have acquired mass literacy, education, big urban centres, and some national self-confidence; and, on the other hand, industry has become more diverse, and trade relatively free, so that big capital has many alternative markets and many possible sources or substitutes for most raw materials – then, the costs of trying to impose or keep colonial rule usually much outweigh the benefits for capital.

Despite Lenin’s broad assertions in Imperialism, it is unlikely that this picture would shock him. Imperialism was a polemic for a particular situation, focused on the tendencies of the actual monopoly-capitalist interests of the time (organised in cartels, trade-blocs, colonial empires, and so on). To drag the broad assertions out of context and make them master-keys for interpreting everything done by big capital through all time is disloyal to Lenin, and blurs understanding.

Lenin rages against the traitor-socialists who saw World War One as an unfortunate attack on the otherwise smooth progress of capitalist civilisation in their own countries towards ripeness for socialism. Advanced (monopoly) capitalism, he explained, brought barbarism as well as civilisation. Whatever the appearance from some of his polemics, however, Lenin did not believe that capitalist development had ‘gone into reverse’, so that thenceforth the more advanced capitalism must be the more barbaric.

He makes this clearest in his writings against those ‘ultra-left’ Bolsheviks who were so convinced that imperialism meant absolute, dead-end social decline that they argued that the old socialist call for nations’ right to self-determination had become utopian and must be replaced by the flat declaration: ‘Down with imperialism!’

‘No Marxist will forget… that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism’ (‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’).

Lenin also, as we have seen, implicitly qualifies his description of imperialism as ‘reaction all along the line’ by arguing that imperialism augmented the forces for democracy as well as the forces against it. ‘Imperialism does not halt the development of capitalism and the growth of democratic tendencies among the mass of the population. On the contrary, it accentuates the antagonism between their democratic aspirations and the anti-democratic tendency of the trusts’. The outcome would be decided by struggle.

Lenin rightly foresees chaos and convulsions rather than smooth capitalist progress. He would not have disagreed with Trotsky, however, writing in 1928: ‘Theoretically, to be sure, even a new chapter of a general capitalist progress in the most powerful, ruling, and leading countries is not excluded. But for this, capitalism would first have to overcome enormous barriers of a class as well as of an inter-state character… In the final analysis, this question will be settled in the struggle of international forces’ (‘Criticism of the Draft Programme of the Communist International’). Unfortunately, in the 1930s, as Trotsky developed the argument that the Stalinist USSR must be ‘defended’ against capitalism because it was by comparison economically ‘progressive’ – workers’ state or no workers’ state – this valid idea would be replaced in his writings by an image of capitalism as absolutely, hopelessly, and definitively at the end of its rope, and the grip of Stalinised ‘Leninism’ even on fiercely anti-Stalinist Marxists would thus inadvertently be strengthened. The bad consequences of this for subsequent Marxist politics are teased out in the introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, volume 1.

When Trotsky writes about ‘a general capitalist progress’ here, he means capitalism introducing new technologies, developing and augmenting the working class, generating scope for mass struggles to win some reforms, and so on – not becoming benevolent or worthy of support! After the ‘struggle of international forces’ had brought the terrible defeat of the working class by Stalinism and fascism, in fact capitalism did reorganise, and did start ‘a new chapter’.

Since 1916 the general usage of ‘imperialism’ has broadened. To all, Marxist or not, it would seem freakish to say that British imperialism in India dated only from 1898. The specific period that Lenin (and the others of his day) saw as ‘modern imperialism’, we now call ‘high imperialism’.

Marxists can reasonably seek to expand and refine common usage of the word ‘imperialism’ – for example, by pointing out that the Bolshevik invasion of Poland in 1920 was not imperialist, or that the ‘imperialism of free trade’ is imperialist. The modern impositions of the IMF, the international banks, and the transnational corporations are ‘imperialist’, even when they use ‘purely economic’ means (control of credit and technologies) to impose on weaker nations not political annexation, nor even economic ‘annexation’ to another particular state, but instead subordination to the ‘purely economic’ mechanisms of the world market (and thus to the giant agglomerations of capital which dominate that market). In other words, basic mechanisms are at work here similar to those in what is commonly admitted to be imperialist.

But in making these arguments about the IMF we implicitly relegate Lenin’s definition of imperialism (as monopoly capitalism) to a secondary place, reclassifying it as an analysis of an underlying force in the particular (though crucial) ‘high imperialist’ phase.

Advanced capitalism is indeed imperialist. Capitalism generates uneven development, and the stronger concentrations of capital have, by their very nature as capital, an inbuilt drive to enrich themselves by plunder, exploitation and domination of weaker nations, classes, and capitalist concerns. The bigger the concentration of capital, the stronger the capitalist state, the greater will be its scope to pursue plunder, exploitation and domination. To step from the recognition that advanced capitalism has, as a matter of fact, inbuilt imperialist drives, to the supposedly ‘orthodox Leninist’ view that imperialism axiomatically equals advanced capitalism, is however to turn critical theory into obscurantist dogma.

Defining imperialism

The ‘orthodox Leninists’ claim great strictness in their definitions. Because the strictness is not true theoretical rigour, developed by constant checking and revision of theory against reality, but rather a matter of esoteric codes and buzzwords, they invariably end up slipping and sliding between their ‘high science’ and looser usages imported from current radical politics (such as ‘dependency theory’, as above). Politics becomes wordplay. The USSR was not dominated by finance capital, hence its conquests could not really be imperialist, hence they could not represent domination, oppression and plunder of the weak by the strong. Or at any rate they were less grievous examples of such evils than ‘proper’ imperialism. Conversely, NATO is based on advanced capitalist states, with lots of banks and big corporations. Big capitalist corporations want to make profits in the Balkans and to shape conditions there to suit that purpose. Hence NATO’s intervention in the Balkans is imperialist. But imperialism is essentially equivalent to colonial conquest. Hence the appropriate slogans are: ‘NATO out of the Balkans! Defend Serbia!’ and so on. As for Serbia’s military oppression in Kosova, that is bad, but Serbia is not ‘Leninist-imperialist’, and our main fire must be against imperialism as the greatest enemy of humanity.

The only way to break through this word-play is to recognise flatly that we must use a broader definition of imperialism, and within that to distinguish between forms of imperialism. Advanced capitalism continues to be imperialist, but less-advanced capitalism, or Stalinist state-capitalism, is not necessarily less imperialist. The evil in advanced capitalism is capitalism, not advance.

Capitalism develops unevenly on a world scale, and with a tendency for the unevenness to increase and compound itself. Some countries become sites for modern infrastructure, advanced industries and services, major finance capital, the headquarters of multinational companies, and heavy investment, while others remain with few industries (often primary-product or low-technology), operated by low-wage labour, with low investment and widespread pauperism. Capitalism is in its very essence a system of ruthless competition, where the rich and the strong do down the poor and the weak, and the richer capitalist states, and the banks and multinationals based in them, dominate over poorer countries. This is imperialism. It is as predatory and vicious as ever. It is as foolish as ever to suppose that NATO forces in Kosova, or UN-Australian troops in East Timor, will be altruistic and ‘humanitarian’. If they save lives, that is for them only an incidental to more fundamental aims of securing conditions for capitalist profit-making. Even when such big-power intervention is, in immediate terms, a lesser-evil alternative to genocidal terror by a local smaller imperialism (Serbia or Indonesia), it is political suicide for socialists to give political support to forces like NATO or the UN, or to look to such forces as providing ‘more realistic’, ‘more immediate’ defence than international workers’ solidarity for the rights of small nations.

Against political domination we fight for the right to self-determination of all nations and for consistent democracy. Against the impositions of the IMF on poorer countries, we support the struggles of workers and peasants in those countries. Against the depredations of international capital, we fight for social ownership and for the planned use of the world’s resources and technology to get rid of poverty. This fight against imperialism is a part of our fight against capitalism, not something superseding and overriding it. The capitalist classes even of the poorest countries are oppressor, not oppressed, classes: we reject any alliance with them beyond possible joint actions for political independence.

World capitalism, and the hierarchies of power within it, are fluid and ever-changing. Alongside world capitalism’s tendencies to accentuate unevenness, and interacting with those tendencies, are tendencies to ‘level out’ development through the decay of the richest states and the emergence of new industrial centres. Imperialism is not a matter of a fixed imperialist ‘camp’ confronting another ‘camp’, nor is it a system which cannot change except to decay. In the last fifty years the big colonial empires have been broken up; most of the ex-colonies have won political independence; a number of them have developed substantial industry and big working classes.

Stalinist imperialism (Russia in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, China in Tibet, etc.) was and is as much to be opposed as ordinary capitalist imperialism. And every capitalist class of any clout, ‘advanced’ or otherwise, has imperialistic impulses. Indonesia’s domination of East Timor, or Serbia’s drive to dominate Kosova, are as much to be opposed as the imperialist ventures of larger, richer states. Countries as India, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, and Brazil, where the ruling class has gained sufficient economic and/or military strength to act as a big power in its region, have developed into ‘sub-imperialist’ centres[38].


1. Giovanni Arrighi, The Geometry of Imperialism, London 1983, p.17.

2. ‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’, Collected Works Vol.23, p.71.

3. This is a whole debate in itself. See Workers’ Liberty no.4 and Workers’ Socialist Review no.2.

4. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, London 1959, p.441 (Marx on credit), 438 (Marx on financial aristocracy), 437-8 (Engels on cartels, etc.), 441 (Marx on crises), 910 (Engels on colonisation), and 489 (Engels on crises). See also Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, London 1976, chapter 32; Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, chapter III/2, and Socialism Utopian and Scientific, part 3.

5. Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, New York 1961, p.80 (crises) and p.170,178 (imperialism).

6. Karl Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, Stuttgart 1899, p.148 (tariffs), 149 (speculation), 79 (finance).

7. Karl Kautsky, The Social Revolution, Chicago 1902, p.56-58.

8. J A Hobson, Imperialism, London 1902, p.51 (business interests), 56-66 (financial houses), 76, 83 (taproot), 60 (tribute).

9. Karl Kautsky, Socialism and Colonial Policy, translated by Angela Clifford, p.25. Kautsky’s line of thought went back as far as 1884, when he argued that ‘commodity production yielded a surplus that neither the worker nor the capitalist could consume… Consequently, colonial territories were important for the industrial nations as a market for surplus production’ [Dick Geary, Karl Kautsky, Manchester 1987, p.48].

10. Carl Schorske, German Social-Democracy 1905-1917, p.77.

11. Kautsky, op.cit., p.18 (work colonies), 29 (India), 53 (Turkey), 45 (resist with determination), 14 (ethics).

12. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, London 1951, p.370-1.

13. Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital, London 1981, p.180, 368 (six banks), 225, 301 (banks and industry unite), 183ff (exit costs), 234 (cartels and capital export), 288-298 (crises), 300-309 (tariffs), 319, 322 (colonial independence), 331, 366 (war), 366 (socialism), 103-4 (interest and profits).

14. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, pp. 78 (competition for control of raw materials), 80 (secondary factors), 83, 84, 115, 27, 86 (monopoly and violence); Caricature, op.cit, p.22 (economy and superstructure); Imperialism, p.71 (concentration), 79 (monopolies again). See also p.87-8 (monopoly incompatible with peaceful methods).

15. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Social Reform or Revolution’, in Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings, New York 1971, p.111.

16. Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, London 1972, p.62 (reverse tendency), 61 (sharper conflicts), 107 (economic territory).

17. This idea of capitalism outgrowing the nation-state framework does not appear in Lenin’s Imperialism, and for definite political reasons. Pyatakov and Bukharin were arguing that in the new epoch of imperialism the Bolsheviks should drop the democratic demand for the right of nations to self-determination.

Too sweeping, replied Lenin, in an article written shortly after Imperialism. ‘What do we mean when we say the national states have become fetters [on the productive forces]? We have in mind the advanced capitalist countries, above all Germany, France, England… But what of other nations?’ (‘Caricature’, p.17). In Asia, in Africa, even in Eastern Europe, the creation of nation states would still represent progress. Lenin did not altogether reject the idea that the productive forces had outgrown the nation-state framework. But he remained wary of it, referred to it rarely, and did not weave it into his basic analysis of imperialism.

18. Lance E Davis and Robert A Huttenback, Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire, Cambridge 1986. It does not follow that Kautsky was right in his plaintive speculations about a little pressure, and no extreme class struggle, soon pushing the rival capitalist states into a realisation that they would be best off with unity and peace.

19. See comment on D K Fieldhouse’s criticisms, below, under heading ‘The end of imperialism – version 3′.

20. Tom Kemp’s Theories of Imperialism, London 1967, made some of the ideas of Hobson and Luxemburg available. But it was academic hackwork, gave no idea of the development of the classical Marxist debate, and missed out the central figure in that debate, Kautsky.

21. Lenin, Imperialism, p.117 (emphasis added): see pp.52, 60, 94, 95-6 etc. on stagnation.

22. A Turn in World Politics, January 1917.

23. Lenin, Imperialism, p.41, 94; see also p.57.

24. Nikolai Bukharin, The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, New York 1972, p.26.

25. Lenin, Imperialism, p.13, 117, 94.

26. Calculated from figures in Michael Barratt Brown, After Imperialism, London 1970, p.xv, 110.

27. Lenin also adduced another argument as to why imperialism should tend towards stagnation and decay: monopoly stifled competition and enabled cartels to suppress technical innovations which would disturb their business. This argument, however, he qualified heavily: see Imperialism, p.94. It is dubious, anyway: monopoly is rarely complete enough to lock out innovations, but often creates units large enough to afford to spend a lot on research and on trying out new products.

28. Lenin, Imperialism, p.52.

29. Ibid. p.97.

30. See articles in Workers’ Liberty no.4 and no.6.

31. Lenin, Imperialism, p.92.

32. Bukharin, Imperialism, p.39. See also p.159.

33. Lenin, Imperialism, p.60, 28.

34. Lenin, ‘The Development of Capitalism in Russia’, first published 1899, Collected Works Volume 3, Moscow 1960. Bukharin, Imperialism, p.84. See also p.96, where Bukharin quotes Marx on this question.

35. Michel Pablo, The Coming War, Paris 1952; James P Cannon, America’s Road to Socialism, New York 1953. A later document of the neo-Trotskyist movement tried to ‘save the theory’ as follows: ‘Contrary to the general revolutionary Marxist assumption… the collapse of the colonial system did not lead to an immediate economic crisis… Among the multiple causes of this apparent paradox, one is of outstanding importance. So long as the newly independent states, emerging through the colonial revolution, are held by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leaderships within the limits of the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist world market, the real power of imperialism is not broken in these countries. Its rule merely shifts from a direct to an indirect form. As foreseen long ago by revolutionary Marxists, the basic strategy of imperialism, confronted with the colonial revolution, has been to modify its form of rule while seeking to maintain its essential content’ [Dynamics of World Revolution Today, New York 1974, p.31 (written in 1963)].

This ‘saves the theory’ by making it empty. No intricate economic analysis is needed to see that socialist revolutions throughout the ex-colonial world would have left metropolitan capitalism hard-pressed! The argument which had been current in the revolutionary Marxist movement was that even bourgeois independence in the colonies would disrupt metropolitan capitalism by restricting a vital area of profitable investment (as it indeed it did restrict it, through nationalisations and protectionist measures) and thus making the metropolis choke to death on its glut. That is the argument which needs to be reviewed.

36. Michael Kidron, ‘Imperialism, highest stage but one’, International Socialism no.9 (1962) and (reprinted) no.61 (1973); Western Capitalism Since the War, London 1968.

37. Lenin, Collected Works, op.cit., vol.23, p.25 (‘at the same time…’); Caricature, p.30 (‘… accentuates…’); Bukharin, Imperialism, p.120; Lenin, ‘Caricature’, p.23 (see also p.30, and article ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’).

38. The idea of ‘sub-imperialism’ was first developed by Ruy Mauro Marini, analysing Brazil. See Brazilian ‘Interdependence’ and Imperialist Integration, in Monthly Review December 1965, and Brazilian Subimperialism, in Monthly Review Feb. 1972.

1 Comment

  1. Not George Sabra said,

    A useful essay but it still advocates the kind of problematic (read: counter-revolutionary) ‘anti imperialism’ that puts Stop the War Coalition on the same side of the barricades of supports of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Ghadafi. Also worth thinking through are the political implications of Mike Macnair’s essay which stresses how colony-grabbing predates what Marxists have referred to the era of monopoly capitalism by a few hundred years

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: