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Understanding Imperialism

And resisting the rush to War

18 May 2022

It’s really hard to miss the dangers of the current hysteria sweeping the world. The nearest equivalent would be the run-up to the First World War. At that time hatred of Germany was so extreme that, just before the end of the war, the British Royal family had to change the name of their house from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English Windsor.  Today a wave of hatred is being launched against Russian people, athletes and cultural figures. The propaganda offensive is so outside of any limits that, at least in Britain and Ireland, the 24-hour barrage of news about Ukraine is almost completely empty of information or analysis.

The torrent is amplified by the absence of opposition. In Britain the disgraced Johnson plays his Churchill caricature while the supposed opposition leader, Sir Kier Starmer, forbids leading Labour Party figures from expressing opposition to the war. In Ireland political parties ramp up support for NATO membership, ramping up hatred of Russia while everyone averts their eyes from streams of US war material flowing through Shannon Airport.

Many in the small socialist currents have been swept along.  In part, this is the expression of the middle class woke milieu in which they operate, people who see everything in terms of identity politics and who are innocent of any understanding of class forces. In part, it is the result of decay in the movements themselves. Many of the ideas of Marxism have become degraded and simplified.

A good example of this is the concept of imperialism. Nothing impedes understanding more than the belief that you already understand a term.

Imperialism has a rough and ready meaning. It simply means expansion and annexation of other nations and covers everything from Genghis Khan to the perceived motivation of Russia today. Unfortunately taking this approach quickly leads you astray. Putin is depicted as an unhinged autocrat operating an insane logic that doesn’t need to be analysed or understood. The Ukraine conflict is seen as the first step in a Russian blitzkrieg across Europe and from this point of view joining NATO seems to be a sensible defensive measure. The fact that such a Russian adventure is militarily impossible in the face of NATO and the US military dominance plays no part in this narrative, nor do open acts of war carried out by the US against Russian forces.

In contrast, for Socialists the word imperialism has a more precise and technical meaning. Defined by Lenin and other socialist thinkers at the start of the 20th century, the term refers to the establishment of capitalism on a global scale:

“Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed”. (LCW, Vol.22, pp. 266-7.)
This concept is clearly dated and much work needs to be done to explain the evolution of late capitalism. Part of the retreat of the socialist currents has been the acceptance of the concept of neoliberalism, a term coined by reformists, Union bureaucrats and NGOs. It is perceived as a strategy of governments, and thus with the potential of being reversed through the election of a new government or forcing the existing government to change course. A more correct term for the phenomenon would be late capitalism or late imperialism. It has been left largely to individual scholars to enumerate the elements of late capitalism and an overarching theory has yet to be developed.

 Imperialism’s strength lies in economic and political forces that dominate the lives of workers everywhere and in in the fact that it is a description of a global system, rather than of individual nations. Many socialists used the term as a description of individual countries, excluded some countries because they were poor or oppressed or because it was recognised that they were colonies or neo-colonies of dominant powers. Lately the word imperialism has degenerated to become a term of abuse or an expression of moral outrage.

So, what is late capitalism? Here the concentration of capital reaches undreamed of heights. The millionaires of the past are now billionaires, typically with monopoly control over specific industries and towering above many individual states.  Global capital assets ascend into the hundreds of trillions. The operation of the world’s economic system, extending to all corners of the globe, is controlled by a few hundred companies. There is a growing division of labour, with much manufacturing and assembly transferred to the Global South. However, as the mass of capital inexorably grows and as manufacturing becomes increasingly automated, the rate of profit across markets steadily decreases, eating away at the very foundations of capitalism.
There is a growing financialisation of capital. Attempts are made to convert money into more money, without any need to produce anything. Value is increasingly extracted during the realisation of capital rather than at the point of production. The rentier economy grows, with more and more activity centred on the trading of assets, including housing stocks and speculation on the future cost of essentials such as raw materials and food. The value of stocks is artificially inflated by quantitative easing and tax cuts. As a result, in low tax economies the state becomes poorer and the private sector increasingly preys on the acquisition of declining public services.  The state and civic society become steadily more corrupt and the veneer of legality begins to drop away from social and economic interactions.

Particularly in the US we have an economy dominated by a swollen military budget.  The wars launched by the US cause unimaginable suffering, but they do not lead to US victory.  More and more the primacy of the dollar and US control of global banking services are used as weapons. They again cause unimaginable suffering, this time not on any battlefield but directly on the civilian population. Again, these are not effective, but they are ramping up global confrontation and breaking apart the lines of distribution that have held the global economy together.

One central element of capitalism that helped maintain the rate of profit was the lack of control over the extraction of raw materials and the disposal of waste. In late capitalism this has led to environmental degradation, mass pollution and climate change. The reaction of capitalism has been to reject, not only the findings of climate science, but the scientific method and rationality, replacing them with targets and aspirations which will never be reached mixed with an ongoing denial of reality

There are no countries outside the imperialist system. By definition it is a global system that applies everywhere. To make use of the term today we have to understand the relationship of each country and the constantly shifting battle for survival amongst capitalist powers.

Capitalism, having emerged as a global system, is unable to construct a global society, bring about global justice or even fend off the onrushing collapse of the economy, climate and the natural world that sustains us.

To apply class analysis, we have to ascend to the concrete.  We have to look at the imperialist world system and the see how that expresses itself in current circumstances. Rather than denounce individual countries we have to describe them in context, the role they play within the global imperialist system.

Evolution of imperialism

When the concept of imperialism was advanced at the beginning of the 20th century the context was inter-imperialist rivalry. A range of capitalist powers of roughly equal size struggled for control of resources, control of subordinate territories and of the global economy. The outcome was world war. When the first war failed to resolve the issues, the war resumed. Britain was in a state of collapse. Japan and the European powers were in ruins. America emerged as the dominant global power.

The US, was then able to dominate Europe and then the world.  A new imperialist world was formed, with the US as the undisputed imperial power. Rivalry was overshadowed by the hegemony of the US, with the other powers acting in a subordinate role.

There was one other outcome to the period of inter-imperialist rivalry. The wars had seen a split in the workers movement between reformists and revolutionaries. The revolutionaries had triumphed with the foundation of the first workers state, the USSR. The reformists became a valuable weapon, feeding limited reforms in exchange for policing the working class. The existence of the workers state became the cornerstone of US global control through a new cold war. In a unipolar world a new dynamic established itself. Inter-imperialist rivalry took a back seat to the confrontation with the USSR as the potential challenger to imperialism.

The US acted to enclose the Soviet Union and to establish military and economic dominance across the globe.  Cold War confrontation ran alongside US suppression of national liberation movements. Massive military force was used to suppress anti-colonial struggles in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. In the capitalist countries witch hunts and special laws were used to discipline the workers.

The USSR stepped back from the challenge posed by the US. Its leadership had crushed the revolutionary impulse of the Bolshevik revolution. With the rise of Stalin in the late 1920s the USSR had pivoted from revolution to co-existence.  The Hitler-Stalin pact demoralised workers and nearly led to the end of the USSR. The USSR defeated fascism, but at the Yalta Conference the bureaucratic caste led by Stalin surrendered revolutionary currents in the West in exchange for a zone of control to buffer the USSR. Its global interventions shifted the focus of colonial revolutions from the working class to support for bourgeois forces. The programme was for detente, for peaceful coexistence. There was no olive branch from the US in return. Indeed, the response to intelligence reports of Soviet weakness was to launch an all-out offensive around the slogan: “The empire of evil”

This period ended with the collapse of the USSR and a declaration from a number of western intellectuals of the end of history. Capitalist regimes were established in Eastern Europe and in the Global South we saw the gradual defeat of many liberation struggles through peace processes that established capitalist semi-colonies dependent on imperialism.

Death Agony

The victory of the US turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. We are now in a new period. The US remains the world hegemon but is involved in a process of the decay of late capitalism. At the heart of the decay is the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Every conceivable step is taken to reverse that tendency. In workplace wage rates are far below a living wage. Housing, health, education are all subsumed to the need for profit. The covid pandemic has seen one million Americans die. Even before Covid-19 lack of health care and poor environmental standards had seen life expectancy fall.

A torrent of cheap money is released through quantitative easing and major corporations inflate their value by buying their own stock and by shifting trillions across the world to various tax havens. Many manufacturing processes are outsourced to keep wage rates low. Basic infrastructure is allowed to decay. Environmental rules governing public and environmental health are abandoned.

Government and the legal system are directly controlled by finance capital. As their legitimacy is questioned, racism is whipped up to divide the population and police are increasingly militarised. The ideological hegemony of the state decreases as the core function - the exercise of force - increases.

The survival mechanisms of US capitalism stretch well beyond the shores of the country. The US is by far the dominant military power on the planet. This cements its power but is also a focus of decay. The military industrial complex soaks up a major part of US expenditure.  It creates corruption through pork barrel politics that distribute that expenditure across the states. The concentration of much research through the military is an expensive diversion that reduces the productivity of labour and also limits innovation outside a number of limited areas.

For all that, the US has never recovered from Vietnam. It no longer has a conscript army and lacks the numbers for long term occupation. Its reliance on technology means an enormous capital expenditure when deploying soldiers. War is unpopular in America and attempts to use proxy forces to do the fighting have failed.

Another major element of military prowess is as a foundation for financial power. US military victory in WWII saw the dollar established as the international currency and gave the US control of the global banking system. Increasingly the use of sanctions and boycott have become weapons of war themselves, with the consequence that other powers increasingly search for alternatives and US power gradually declines.


Inter-imperialist rivalry of the early 20th century and US hegemony of the later years has been replaced by a new global dynamic – the tension between a decaying US and a rising China.

China’s Gross Domestic Product was 67% of the US measure in 2019, but this is less impressive when we consider that China has five times the population and the per capita GDP for US citizens is almost six times that of China. The US is the 5th richest country in the world, whereas China comes in at 63rd.

However, the growth rate of the Chinese economy routinely exceeds that of the US, often exceeding 6% while the US has only recently exceeded 2%. China is able to advance infrastructural development in many countries through the Belt and Road Initiative. The US is unable to maintain its own infrastructure.

Growth rate is an important measure because it indicates the levels of working-class productivity in each country. This is the factor that, over time, increases the power of a particular economy just as, in the case of the US, military aggression and gunboat diplomacy mark imperial decline.

The response to Chinese growth on the part of some socialists is to argue that it is an immaterial matter. If both the US and China are imperialist then nothing has changed for the working class. However, there are of course tactical advantages for workers struggles in a multipolar world rather than a unipolar one.

Then there is the nature of China itself. There is no doubt that production in China is capitalist or that it has produced a layer of billionaires. But is the state controlled by the capitalists?

The Chinese state is controlled by a bureaucracy run by the Chinese Communist Party. The bureaucracy has decayed towards a full transition to capitalism but has paused on that course, partly because of the fate of the USSR when it embarked on that journey. As a result, it has a central state apparatus that is able to direct capital growth in such a way that is impossible for the West by, for example, investing to prevent climate change.  The working class have little power, but the party observes working class sentiment extremely closely and modifies policy to reduce the possibility of independent mobilisation.

Many of the activities of the Chinese state operate according to an imperialist logic. They seek military control of the South China Sea. Their Belt and Road Initiative seeks to extend their economic power. Many of these strategies make sense in terms of external threats.

The US took economic and military control of many states. The USSR built zones of influence that were primarily means of political control and often involved simply transferring capital to states in these zones. The Belt and Road Initiative is somewhere in-between. The Chinese firms are expected to make a profit, but the terms have to be extremely favourable in order to ensure that local capitalists are happy to accept a Chinese presence.

There is really no doubt but that internally the state is evolving in the direction of a fully-fledged capitalist state or that externally the direction of travel is as a global imperialist power. However, it has not arrived there yet. That would be signalled by massive attacks on the Chinese working class and by the involvement of China in endless foreign wars.

At this point it seems reasonable to view it as a deformed workers state. Socialists should not support China, but they should defend it against increasingly open aggression by the imperialist powers, led by the US.

Global jigsaw

The conflict in Ukraine has shone a blinding light on power relations across the globe. The Western powers are totally in thrall to the US. The goal of the Western alliance is regime change in Russia, defanging it as a military power and gaining access to the natural wealth stored in the country. The longer term envisages the encirclement and isolation of China. In that paradigm is contained an onslaught on the working class in terms of militarism, a strengthened global coalition for war and the use of nuclear weapons, stronger state repression, tighter control of the media, human rights restrictions and a further immiseration of workers in a period of ongoing economic decay. Fascist tendencies are strengthening and being sponsored by capitalism.

There are many contradictions. The European alliance is in decay and many national interests have been temporarily suppressed under US pressure. Many workers in the Global North are suspicious of the war drive. Those in the Global South are frequently hostile to the US.

With the passage of time these tendencies will become much stronger and spontaneous revolt will appear. The difficulty lies in the lack of independent organisation and in the level of class consciousness.

Developing that consciousness should be the role of the socialist movement.  However, it is no secret that that movement has fragmented. One road forward is to reverse that fragmentation and look for consensus.  It is our view that what we should be looking for is absolute clarity, for a new socialist movement that understands capitalism and imperialism and calls constantly for their destruction.

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