What is imperialism?

See also :
Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Following the recent conflict between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon we have heard many voices raised against American imperialism as the main cause of war and destabilisation. The leftists are often the first to argue this. The Trotskyists in particular never miss an opportunity to stigmatise American imperialism and its Israeli ally.

But the world’s biggest power doesn’t have the monopoly of imperialism. Quite the contrary, imperialism is the condition sine qua non for the survival of each nation. The period of the decadence of capitalism, which began almost a century ago, marked the entry of the system into the era of generalised imperialism which no nation could avoid. This permanent confrontation contains war as a perspective and militarism as a mode of life for all states, whether large, small, strong, weak, aggressor or victim.

To give a very general definition of it, imperialism is the policy of a country that tries to conserve or to spread its political, economic and military domination over other countries and territories. As such it refers to numerous moments in human history (from the old Assyrian, Roman, Ottoman empires or the conquests of Alexander the Great up to today). Only in capitalism does the term take on a very particular sense. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “…the urge of capitalism to expand suddenly forms a vital element, the most outstanding feature of modern development; indeed expansion has accompanied the entire history of capitalism and in its present, final, imperialist phase, it has adopted such an unbridled character that it puts the whole civilisation of mankind in question” (Anti-Critique). It is thus vital to understand what imperialism is in a capitalist system which has become decadent, which today engenders conflict everywhere, subjecting the planet to blood and fire, which in the “present, final, imperialist phase… puts the whole civilisation of mankind in question”.

Since the world market was constituted at the beginning of the 20th century and has been shared out into commercial zones and areas of influence between the advanced capitalist states, the intensification of competition between these nations has led to the aggravation of military tensions. It has also led to the unprecedented development of armaments and the growing submission of all economic and social life to military imperatives and the permanent preparation for war.

Rosa Luxemburg shattered the basis of the mystification which made a state, or a particular group of states, those with a certain military power, as solely responsible for warlike barbarity. If all states don’t have the same means, all have the same policy. If effectively the ambitions for world domination could only be realised by the most powerful states, the smallest powers still shared the same imperialist appetites. As in the Mafia, only the Godfather can dominate the entire town, while the neighbourhood pimps can dominate only a single street, but nothing distinguishes them at the level of the aspirations and methods of gangsters. Thus the smallest states devote as much energy as the others to becoming a greater nation at the expense of their neighbours.

That’s why it is impossible to make a distinction between oppressor and oppressed states. In fact, in the relations of force imposed between imperialist sharks, all are equally in competition in the world arena. The bourgeois myth of the aggressor state or bloc serves to justify the ‘defensive’ war. The identification of the most aggressive imperialism is used as propaganda to dragoon populations into war.

Militarism and imperialism are the most open manifestations of the entry of capitalism into its decadence. This whole issue provoked a debate among revolutionaries at the beginning of the 20th century.

The materialist explanation of imperialism

Faced with the phenomenon of imperialism, different theories were developed in the workers’ movement to explain it, notable by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Their analyses were forged on the eve of and during the First World War against the vision of Kautsky who made imperialism one option among other policies possible for capitalist states and asked “... Cannot the present imperialist policy be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capitals?” (cited by Lenin in his Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism) .

In contrast, the marxist approaches shared the view that imperialism was not only a product of the laws of capitalism but an inherent necessity of its period of decline. The theory of Lenin revealed a particular importance because it allowed him, during WWI, to defend a strictly internationalist position which then became the official position of the Communist International. However, Lenin first of all confronted the question of imperialism in a descriptive fashion without elaborating a clear explanation of the origins of imperialist expansion. For him it was essentially a movement of the developed countries whose main characteristic was the exploitation in the colonies by the “superabundant” capital of the metropoles, with the aim of achieving “superprofits” by exploiting cheap labour and abundant raw materials. In this view, the most advanced capitalist countries became parasites on the colonies: the hunt to obtain “superprofits”, indispensable to their survival, explained the worldwide conflict aimed at conserving or conquering colonies. This view had the consequence of dividing the world into oppressor countries on one hand and oppressed countries in the colonies on the other. “… Lenin’s emphasis on colonial possessions as a distinguishing and even indispensable feature of imperialism has not stood the test of time. Despite his expectation that the loss of the colonies, precipitated by national revolts in these regions, would shake the imperialist system to its foundations, imperialism has adapted quite easily to ‘decolonisation’. Decolonisation [after 1945] simply expressed the decline of the older imperialist powers, and the triumph of imperialist giants who were not burdened with many colonies in the period around World War I. Thus the USA and Russia were able to develop a cynical ‘anti-colonial’ line to further their own imperialist ends, to batten onto national movements in the colonies and transform them immediately into inter-imperialist proxy wars” (International Review 19).

Starting from the analysis of the whole of the historic period and of the evolution of capitalism as a global system, Rosa Luxemburg achieved a more complete and more profound understanding of the phenomenon of imperialism. She showed the historic basis of imperialism in the very contradictions of the capitalist system. Whereas Lenin limited himself to establishing the phenomenon of the exploitation of the colonies, Rosa Luxemburg analysed the colonial conquests as a phenomenon that constantly accompanied capitalist development, feeding the insatiable necessity of capitalist expansion through the penetration of new markets, the introduction of capitalist relations in the geographic zones where capitalism didn’t yet exist:Accumulation is impossible in an exclusively capitalist environment. Therefore, we find that capital has been driven since its very inception to expand into non-capitalist strata and nations, the ruin of artisans and peasantry, the proletarianisation of the intermediate strata, colonial policy (the policy of ‘opening up’  markets) and the export of capital. The existence and the development of capitalism since its beginning has only been possible through a constant expansion of production into new countries.” (Anti-Critique)[1]

Thus imperialism is considerably accentuated in the last quarter of the 19th century: “Capitalism in its avid, feverish hunt for raw materials and buyers who are neither capitalists nor wage labourers, robbed, decimated and murdered the colonial populations. This was the epoch of the penetration and extension of Britain into Egypt and South Africa, France into Morocco, Tunis and Tonkin, Italy into East Africa and the frontiers of Abyssinia, Tsarist Russia into central Asia and Manchuria, Germany into Africa and Asia, the USA into the Philippines and Cuba, and Japan into the Asian continent”(‘The problem of war’ by Jehan, 1935, quoted in International Review19)

But this evolution also comes up against capitalism’s fundamental contradictions: the more capitalist production spreads its grip over the globe, the narrower the limits of the market created by the frenetic search for profits becomes, in relation to the need for capitalist expansion. Beyond the competition for the colonies, Rosa Luxemburg identified in the saturation of the world market and the depletion of non-capitalist outlets a turning point in the life of capitalism: the historic weakness and impasse of this system which “can no longer fulfil its function as a historic vehicle for the development of the productive forces” (Anti-Critique). In the final analysis, this is also the cause of wars that would henceforth characterise the mode of life of decadent capitalism.

Imperialism, the mode of life of decadent capitalism

Once the capitalist market had reached the limits of the globe, the scarcity of solvent outlets and of the new markets opened up the permanent crisis of the capitalist system, whereas the necessity for expansion remained a vital question for each state. Henceforth, the expansion of one state could only take place to the detriment of other states in a struggle for carving up the world market through armed conflict.

 In the epoch of ascendant capitalism wars (national, colonial, imperialist conquest) expressed the upward march, flourishing, enlargement and expansion of the capitalist economic system. Capitalist production resorted to war as a continuation of its economic policies by other means. Each war paid its way by opening the way for further expansion, ensuring the development of an expanded capitalist production…war was the indispensable means for capitalism to open up the potential for its future development, at a time when this potential still existed and could only be opened up through violence” (Report to the 1945 Conference of the Gauche Communiste de France).

In the decadent period, however, “war became the only means, not for the solution of the international crisis, but through which each national imperialism sought to escape from its difficulties at the expense of rival imperialist states” (ibid).

This new historic situation compelled every country in the world to develop forms of state capitalism. Each national capital is condemned to imperialist competition and finds in the state the single structure sufficiently strong enough to mobilise the whole of society with the aim of confronting its economic rivals on the military level. “The permanent crisis makes it inevitable that the various imperialisms will settle scores through armed struggle. War and the threat of war are the latent or open expressions of a situation of permanent war in society. Modern war is a war of materiel. It demands a monstrous mobilisation of all the technical and economic resources of a country. Production for war becomes the axis of industrial production and the main economic activity of society” (ibid). That’s why technical progress is entirely conditioned by the military: aviation was first developed militarily during the First World War, the atom utilised as a bomb in 1945, information technology and the internet conceived as military tools by NATO. The weight of the military sector in all countries absorbs all the living forces of the national economy with a view to developing armaments to be used against other nations. At the dawn of decadence, war was conceived as a means of sharing out markets.

But with time, imperialist war more and more loses its economic rationality. From the beginning of decadence, the strategic dimension takes precedence over strictly economic questions. It is a question of conquering geostrategic positions against all other imperialisms in the fight for hegemony and the defence of military rank and status. In this period of the decline of capitalism, war more and more represents an economic and social disaster. This absence of economic rationality of war doesn’t mean that each national capital abstains from plundering the productive forces of the adversary or the vanquished. But this ‘plunder’, contrary to what Lenin thought, no longer constitutes the principal aim of war. Whereas some still think, officially trying to be faithful to Lenin, that war could be motivated by economic appetites (oil being the most popular prize on this question), reality answers that. The economic balance sheet of the war in Iraq led by the USA since 2003 doesn’t at all come down on the side of ‘profitability’. The revenues from Iraqi oil, even those hoped for in the next hundred years, count for little faced with the vast sums expended by the United States in order to undertake this war. And at the moment they do not even look like slowing down.

Capitalism’s entry into its phase of decomposition intensifies the heat of the contradictions contained in its period of decadence. For every country, each particular conflict carries costs which greatly outstrip the benefits that they could draw from them. Wars result only in massive destruction, leaving the countries in which they take place anaemic and in complete ruin, never to be reconstructed. But none of these calculations of profit and loss can put aside the necessity for states, all states, to defend their imperialist presence in the world, to sabotage the ambitions of their rivals, or to increase their military budgets. On the contrary, they are all caught in an irrational grip from the point of view of economics and capitalist profitability. To fail to recognise the irrationality of the bourgeoisie reveals an underestimation of the threat of the destruction, pure and simple, that weighs on the future of humanity.

(From Revolution Internationale no. 335, May 2003)



[1] Rosa Luxemburg, Anti-Critique. In The Accumulation of Capital, she shows that the totality of surplus value extracted from the exploitation of the working class cannot be realised inside capitalist social relations. This is because the workers, whose wages are inferior to the value created by their labour, cannot buy all the commodities that they produce. The capitalist class cannot consume all the surplus value since a part of it must serve for the enlarged reproduction of capital and must be exchanged. Thus capitalism, considered from a global point of view, is constantly obliged to search for buyers for its goods outside of capitalist social relations.