What is imperialism?

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What is imperialism?
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: What is imperialism?. The discussion was initiated by Jamal.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

This article seems more

This article seems more relevant than ever with the ongoing conflict in Gaza. I'm currently working on a write-up of the events and this article has helped a ton, so I wanted to bring it to the forefront and offer it up for comments from other comrades. Cheers.

I'm glad you did

Bring it to the forefront. It is an excellent article and has helped me a ton also. If you will pardon a moment's flippancy, if it were a cleaning product I would not cease recommending it to anyone with a clogged brain. I tried every thing to clear the germs and bacteria from my understanding of Imperialism which is now germ free. It does what it says on the can. It answers the question clearly, simply and tellingly.


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


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.

And it's 1...2....3...what are we fighting for? don't know and I don't give a damn ... next stop is Vietnam.

And the masters of war compulsively repeat the steps of their danse macabre without even a reason born of merciless capitalist logic. 


Thanks Jamal for putting up

Thanks Jamal for putting up this old article.  An interesting read and very useful to help me prepare for a presentation for the MDF meeting in Birmingham on 27th September  (all welcome of course!!)

I find the clear and straightforward explanation of what imperialism is to be very useful, in particular the article’s definition of imperialism and its emergence in the context of decadence

I am more inclined however to find an explanation for what imperialism is, in the context on the growth of state capitalism.   OK, state cap and decadence are clearly related but isn’t imperialism really about the nation states’ role in the global market rather than private capitals’ role? The latter led the colonial drive but that was coming to a halt at the end of the 19th century.  The centralised nation state apparatus only comes to take a lead in foreign political and economic affairs at that stage and this is when we start to call it  imperialism isn’t it??

I don’t think that Luxemburg’s theory on pre-capitalist markets is essential to the analysis of imperialism however.  There is a very rather honest quote from Luxemburg which makes clear the key point of her conclusions and its key weakness.

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)

The quote poses 2 significant problems. 

Firstly it raises the issue of the level of pre-cap strata in existence at say 100 years ago and again today?  Luxemburg is quite unambiguous and the logic of the theory is clearcut – no capitalism accumulation without non- capitalist markets!!  There is no way round that,  so even assuming that it was a reasonable hypothesis when she wrote it in 1913 what is the level of pre-cap markets available today to maintain accumulation worldwide?  Remembering also that it is not the diminished return that is achieved at today’s high level of development of productive forces that has to be maintained but its absolute level globally.  There must be a significant amount left or accumulation would have come to a halt by now. 

The 2nd problem is that more specifically related to the wars of capitalism.  How has the period of reconstruction following WW2 been possible since her theory quite clearly excludes the possibility that world war can enable new cycles of accumulation.  Isnt the prevailing explanation one that suggests by destroying and devaluing old capital, new accumulation is possible.  Perhaps it is being suggested wars create pre capitalist economies?

subject of the meeting on 27th

These are important questions posed by Link but I was under the impression that the focus of the MDF meeting was more on antifascism and the class positiion on World War Two, rather than a general discussion about the economic foundations of imperialism

Its on imperialism and

Its on imperialism and antifascism and i'm reserving the right to ramble, but agreed I wouldnt be going into economic theory in the presentation.  Will anyone from the ICC be coming?

meeting subject

Thanks for the clarification. We hope that someone from the ICC will be there. 

Link's questions

The points raised are very pertinent. The relationship between private capital and itself - now in concert now in competition, the relationship between private capital and state capital similarly so, the relationship between private capital and a nation state's imperialist nature : all these would appear complex to elucidate were it not for Marx's clear depiction of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode and furthermore his equally clear depiction of the accumulation of such contradictions as the cycles of reproduction move through time.

Link is right in that if one takes Luxemburg's posit of 'no pre capitalist markets, no capitalism' as an irrefutable tenet of analysis (and on the face of it that is the appearance) then the questions he asks are indeed valid. I also, however, agree with Link that, however that may be, it doesn't per se detract from the helpful description of the nature of Imperialism. I would also add that I personally didn't get the impression that the quote - unambiguous though it is - was used to unequivocally confirm her theory of accumulation so much as to show that the imperialist nature of the nation state was inherently suited to the (pun warning) imperious nature of capitalism which must expand or .... well .. or what? 'Die' would be so easy to write but misleading. Was it Feudalism on Monday and Capitalism on Tuesday? Now, the revolutionary proletariat in its unprecedented position must of necessity consciously overthrow the whole of class history with precisely that kind of disjuncture, nevertheless without its class-conscious action, capitalism - however dysfunctional - doesn't just collapse because there are no more Indias and Africas for imperialist states to invade, possess and defend thus providing brother capital with fresh blood to suck. Nor is Link implying such by the way.

link wrote:

..........what is the level of pre-cap markets available today to maintain accumulation worldwide?  Remembering also that it is not the diminished return that is achieved at today’s high level of development of productive forces that has to be maintained but its absolute level globally.  There must be a significant amount left or accumulation would have come to a halt by now. 

(I take that to mean that if you take Luxemburg literally then the lack of 'halt' begs explanation.)

 Without detracting from core analysis that does not change (the myth of 'commodity': self-justifying 'value': man's natural activity alienated) Marx, Luxemburg et alia were not related to Nostradamus.The expansion into non-capitalist strata, the expansion into pre-capitalist markets was the case. The primacy of industrial production still is the case. Every product everywhere at base is mined or grown. Even recycling doesn't change this because the machinery of that is made from raw materials mined, smelted, powered by oil, coal drawn/mined etc. Marx (and Luxemburg) would probably not have been surprised by capitalism's ability to turn - say - trillions of gigabytes of useless information a day into commodities, thereby turning ever more sophisticated methods of distributing such into commodities, but they could not possibly have imagined the creation of -say- the digital domain or a world surrounded by satellites pumping hundreds of TV channels to receivers in homes: millions and millions of cars which can talk to their drivers. None of these things dislodge the commodity from its global throne, or change the estrangement at the heart of production, or the deceptions of the bourgeoisie but they do change many secondary considerations.

Marx in 1843 already had revealed the 'moral vileness' as he called it of the banking and credit system and speculative capital was thoroughly considered. But again although he might not have been surprised by the level of nonsense that fictitious instruments derivatives represent, he could not imagine the scale on which they operate nor the nanosecond transaction speeds attainable. I have no idea what the precise comparison would be but I would imagine that todays markets perform a hundred thousand transactions in the time it would have taken the stockmarkets of his day to do one hundred. 

Similarly: the scale, sheer size and untraceably cross-threaded system of loans, debts, hedges, default swop options, security back assets et al. which mix every kind of private and state capital . A Wall Street investment banker said of the extrapolated-to-fiction paper derivatives in 2005/6/7 that "only the lawyers who invented them have any idea what they are - and even that's debatable" Accumulation appears to continue. This may represent a real ability to produce and sell something. But in the same way as the markets are saturated with commodities for which there are not enough solvent outlets making production unsustainable, the system is permeated with a significant amount of money-form capital which is only worth what it says it is worth because it says it is - as it were. I - self evidently - can make no claim to understand or present this any more clearly

Dysfunctional capitalism can take one step forward in this location and two steps back.The Theses On Decomposition do not deny the possibility of any growth at all as it depicts the new general circumstance : the accumulation of contradictions compounded cycle after cycle by the addition of faked solutions, temporary and de facto superficial fixes.

The immiseration that prevents consumption continues. On the other hand the must be some viable market 'free disc space' left ,some solvent outlets otherwise how do millions of mobiles go , followed by its more advanced replacement which in turn feeds into Google and media. This however is secondary to primary production.


The nation state is imperialist by nature. Having an imperialist militarist agenda goes with the territory of nation state - now more, now less in concert with private capital. When there were 'plenty' of pre-capitalist markets, this nature could fully express itself, which suited both private and state capital. What the article delineates so well is that this nature now doesn't depend on the need to actually annexe Palestine any more. Nor is the profit motive primary. This imperialist nature is reduced -as it were - to proof of military status, rank, in the nation state capitalist complex: the backstage pass to meetings with more powerful states which allows the 'capital' part of the state and private capital chums to do the deals and it includes the 'bouncer' effect to prevent other states from gate-crashing the party.


A bit ragged