Between 1900 and the end of World War I, the concept of imperialism developed among Marxist thinkers and activists to denote the contemporary expansion of formal colonial empires and the intense conflicts over that expansion among particular capitalist industrialized countries. In subsequent decades, the theory of imperialism has attained the status of the Marxist concept for grasping the course of economic, social and political developments in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the relationship of this Third World to the advanced capitalist countries.

With the disappearance, for the most part, of formal empire, imperialism has been interpreted more recently in terms of an “informal” system of economic and political domination in which formal political independence does not correlate with economic and social progress. As such, the classic interpretations of imperialism have today become reference points for the analyses of the “neo-colonialism” and “dependency” schools. The theory of imperialism, thus interpreted, has in fact managed to pass for Marxism in much of the Third World, where it is frequently appropriated by political elements who, beyond their anti-imperialist rhetoric, are otherwise quite hostile to the progressive values usually associated with socialism.

In this article I propose to scrutinize the concept of imperialism as it has developed in the Marxist tradition, and to assess its impact on contemporary writing about the Third World and on political practice there. At a time when capitalism, more than ever before, represents a world system, penetrating and tying together nearly every society, it is necessary to evaluate the appropriateness of this theory both for its explanatory power and its political implications.

Imperialism in the Classical Tradition

The major texts from the formative development of the theory of imperialism are V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), and chapters 29 to 32 in Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913). We can begin our assessment by citing Lenin’s identification of five “basic features” of imperialism:

1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; 2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation…of a financial oligarchy; 3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; 4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist combines which share the world among themselves, and 5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

Lenin’s subtitle, “The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” very accurately captures its main focus. Lenin’s pamphlet concentrates almost entirely on detailing structural changes which had occurred in European and North American capitalism from 1890 to 1915. The account of these changes is not meant primarily to explain “the territorial division of the world among the biggest capitalist powers,” let alone how this was done, or its implications for the rest of the world. Lenin’s explicit aim is to explain European realities, specifically the outbreak of the first world war and the failure of the workers’ movement in Europe (the Second International) to oppose that war as it had previously undertaken to do.

Broadly, the first is explained as the result of the increasing conflict of European capitals (and thus of the nation-states which embodied them) for investment outlets and markets. The second is explained by the bribing of the working class(or at least a section of it — the labor “aristocracy”) with “super-profits” obtained from imperialist exploitation — mainly foreign investments. Lenin’s pamphlet is written with great clarity and passion, and it had an enormous influence on subsequent Marxist writing on imperialism. In part this was because of the prestige with which all of Lenin’s work was endowed once 1917 had occurred, but, let it be said, it reflected also the considerable power of the argument. Lenin’s concentration on the ending of the era of competitive capitalism and the growth of monopoly, though perhaps slightly overdrawn as a picture of realities in 1916, was essentially accurate and enormously insightful, indeed prophetic, as the elucidation of a trend in capitalism. The tendency of competition to breed oligopoly and monopoly, a tendency which Marx noted much earlier and which Lenin stresses strongly, is evident now for all to see in the era of multinational corporations and the domination of production in all the advanced capitalist countries of the world by 200-300 companies.

Luxemburg’s Thesis

The central focus of Luxemburg’s book is given in its title, and it too is a European-centered work. For the aim of Accumulation of Capital is to develop some of Marx’s ideas in the light of changes in European and North American capitalism which had occurred since the publication oi Capital. She subjects Marx’s second volume “reproduction schema” to critical scrutiny, and decides that they reveal a “problem” that he had failed to solve — the problem of realizing the surplus value generated under conditions of expanded reproduction. Her analysis suggests that workers and capitalists alone are incapable of generating the demand required to realize all the surplus value reproduced. In short, capitalism requires a market outside itself in order to solve this “realization problem.”

She identifies the “natural economy” and the “peasant economy” existing outside capitalism which may be the means of resolving this problem. The last six chapters of the book are essentially an account of the way capitalism subordinates these other types of economy in order to maintain its drive toward accumulation. This subordination does not merely take the form of creating markets for the realization of surplus value. Luxemburg further avows that “capitalism needs non-capitalist social strata … as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labor power for its wage system.” These chapters are in many ways very fine. Indeed, a modern reader can learn more about the subordination of non-capitalist economies to capitalism (particularly in the historical period of “primitive accumulation”) from reading Luxemburg than he or she would from a reading of Lenin.

The last two chapters identify, like Lenin, a period of “imperialism” which she seems to date from about 1900. “The imperialist phase of capitalist accumulation,” she writes,

comprises the industrialization and capitalist emancipation of the hinterland where capital formerly realized its surplus value. Characteristic of this phase are lending abroad, railroad construction, revolutions and wars…. Just as the substitution of commodity economy for a natural economy and that of capitalist production for a simple commodity production was achieved by wars, social crises and the destruction of entire social systems, so at present the achievement of capitalist autonomy in the hinterland and backward colonies is attained amidst wars and revolutions. Revolution is an essential process for the process of capitalist emancipation. The backward communities must shed their obsolete political organizations, relics of natural and simple commodity economy, and create a modern state machinery adapted to the purposes of capitalist production.

Luxemburg’s focus, like Lenin’s (and indeed just like Bukharin and Hilferding) is overwhelmingly upon European capitalism, its trends, its problems, the possibility of revolution against it. Furthermore, Luxemburg states explicitly (indeed en passant, in a way that makes it clear that she thought it a totally non-contentious assumption) that the ultimate end of capitalist penetration of the “hinterland,” and the revolutionary process it fosters, would be the creation of “autonomous,” fully fledged capitalist production in that hinterland. Most important, though her book is concerned throughout most of its length with capitalism and capital accumulation, she ends up, like Lenin, by identifying imperialism as a new, qualitatively different stage of capitalism. Unlike Lenin, though, she does not attempt a systematic delineation of the features which distinguish it from previous stages.

The Bag of Imperialism

It is this last characteristic of the classical tradition, shared by Luxemburg and Lenin, which I feel has been most damaging to subsequent Marxist work. For its effect has been to produce a bifurcation inside Marxism which is the mirror image of similar bifurcations which one sees in bourgeois scholarship. Just as bourgeois historians, for example, operate with categories like “the Orient” or “Islam” in order to stress the “exotic” nature of the societies with which they are dealing (and thus to justify the use of certain assumptions and methods of study which they would never apply to European or North American realities), so Marxists too have had their own bag to put the “wogs” in — imperialism. “Our” problem is capitalism; “their” problem is imperialism.

This probably did not matter too much when the focus of analysis was indeed formal empire and the battle was against colonialism and imperialism as politico-juridical conquest and control by European nation-states. But once formal empire had gone, Marxists were left with a category which referred to certain forms of (particularly economic) domination which advanced capitalist economies could have over others, but whose relation to the main body of Marxist theory, about capitalism as a mode of production, was rather problematic. Now sometimes this has been seen as a strength; the classical tradition, and Lenin in particular, have been praised for seeing that “imperialist domination” did not require formal empire. This indeed has been the link between that tradition and modern writing on “neocolonialism” and “dependency.” However, as a mere matter of historical fact, my reading of the classical theorists does not suggest that they wished to distinguish their concept of imperialism from the bourgeois concept at this level at all.

This comes out clearly in Bukharin’s chapter on “Imperialism as a Historic Category.” There he makes clear that his quarrel with bourgeois historians of empire was not their equation of imperialism with formal political conquest, but with their explanations of why those conquests occurred, and in particular their failure to understand the territorial imperatives of capitalist expansion in the era of finance capital. There is nothing in Lenin’s introduction to Bukharin’s work, nor in his own pamphlet, to suggest that he demurred from this view. Of course, in Bukharin, Lenin and Luxemburg one finds references to countries falling outside the bounds of formal empire (such as Argentina and Persia) but which are undergoing the effects of some mechanism or other of “imperialist” economic domination (loans, foreign investment, forced trade monopolies). In no case is any great theoretical play made with these examples: often the context suggests that the authors thought that in the era of imperialism even the formal political independence of these countries would be short-lived! I

n short, it seems that the classical writers have, with hindsight, been given credit for an insightfulness which they did not necessarily possess. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was, after all, a period of considerable expansion of formal empire and of conflicts over that expansion between particular imperialist powers. Marxists were as impressed with this phenomenon as bourgeois observers, but they explained it in a different way. That explanation was of a sort which made concepts of “informal,” or “neo-colonial” empire possible to develop when historical times had changed, but it is quite a different thing to attribute this “insight” to the classical theorists themselves.

Contesting Lenin

Moreover, and this is my major point, the sort of explanations of neocolonialism or post-empire “imperialism” which have been developed on the basis of the classical tradition are not perhaps the most illuminating ones. To understand why, it is necessary to look again at those five characteristics of imperialism presented by Lenin: the emergence of monopolies, of finance capital (from the merger of bank and industrial capital), the export of capital, the rise of international as well as national monopolies, and the territorial division of the world.

All except the last refer exclusively to what Marx called “the realm of exchange value,” i.e. the structure of capitalist ownership (monopolies), and monetary transactions either within or between countries. With the addition of trade links, which find a minor place in Lenin but receive rather more analysis in Luxemburg, this has been the staple diet of the Marxist literature on imperialism from 1917 to the present day. Even in the case of trade, most emphasis has gone to the monetary dimension of the “terms of trade” — a tendency which reaches its ultimate development in Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange.

Nor is this accidental. The essence of Lenin’s theory of imperialism as a particular stage of capitalism was precisely that it was distinguished by the growing domination of exchange and exchange relations (and of the bank capital — money — earned through exchange) over production and relations of production. It was this reversal of the hierarchy of relations in “competitive capitalism” (with their counterpart in the theoretical priority given to production and relations of production in Capital) which in Lenin’s eyes required a new theory of the “imperialist” stage of capitalism.

I want to contend here that Lenin was simply wrong on this count. The reversal which he attempts to theorize never happened. Production and relations of production are as central to capitalism today as they were in Marx’s day. In this respect, at least, capitalism has not changed, and it had not changed in Lenin’s time either. The major result of this shift of the theoretical focus, begun by Lenin and continued in virtually all the subsequent literature on imperialism, has been an almost total neglect of production and relations of production in an international context.

Marx began, in Capital, an attempt to locate what he called “the laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production. Insofar as the central ideas and concepts (use value/exchange value, labor/labor power, value/surplus value, surplus labor, forces of production/relations of production) developed in Capital have been taken up by Marxists, this has been almost entirely in the context of an analysis of national “capitalisms.” The international economic relations of capitalism, especially relations with non-capitalist economies, have been hived off as the separate study of “imperialisms,” working with a much more restricted, and in my view much more impoverished, set of concepts focusing on the most “apparent” form of exchange relations — monetary relations.

Imperialism and the Process of Production

There have been two effects of all this. First, at the same time as the capitalist mode of production has been internationalizing itself ever more rapidly, so that supposedly “individual” capitalist economies are now tied tightly together within the process of production itself (especially through the workings of multinational firms), Marxists have been stuck with a theory of “capitalism” which is still implicitly national in its focus. Second, the whole structure of the theory of imperialism has led to a neglect of the study of changes in production and relations of production within dominated economies which, if not themselves capitalist, have been ever more deeply penetrated by capitalism. The deepest expression of this penetration has been changes in both the forces and relations of production within those economies. Here I refer to changes in agricultural production and in petty commodity production, as well as to the introduction of capitalist industry.

And yet things need not have gone this way. In a justly famous passage in the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes of how “the bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication…creates a world after its own image.” “The bourgeoisie,” he continues,

has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared to the rural…. The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization…. The bourgeoisie during its rule of scarce one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together…. What earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor.

What is most remarkable about this passage is that it is even truer now. To a large degree the history of the world since it was written (in late 1847) is the continuous enactment of the dynamic it perceives. More and more continents and parts of the world have been affected by the processes he outlines, so that now there is nowhere, outside of the communist world, not deeply affected by the expansion of capitalism.

Yet while this has been happening, at least in part because of the influence of the theory of imperialism, Marxists have been focusing on the epiphenomena of these massive structural transformations — monetary flows. Where are the localized or total histories of the spread of the capitalist mode of production in the world? Can we identify major Marxist accounts of urbanization, of agricultural change, of the destruction and/or incorporation of petty commodity production, of the new forms of transportation and communication developed since Marx’s time, of changes in the division of labor locally and internationally? One could imagine writing the history of the world capitalist mode of production as seen from Latin American and Iranian perspectives, as viewed from a district of Botswana, a village in India, a region in Peru. Instead of writing about all this and the new forms of class and sexual struggle which it has generated, we have been stuck in international trade, foreign investment flows, repatriated profits and transfer pricing.

Of course, the monetary relations of capitalism are important. In some ways they are all-important: the bourgeoisie only transforms the world in ways and to the extent which is profitable, and profit is a monetary category. I do not suggest that the work which has been done on the terms of trade, or transfer pricing by multinational corporations, or foreign investment here there and everywhere, is useless. My point is that monetary relations are only a part of the theory of capitalist development (as Sweezy called Marx’s Capital), but they have been very nearly the whole of the theory of imperialism. As a result, we are effectively without a theory of the world capitalist mode of production. Is it one production system or many? What are the stages of its development? What are the stages of incorporation of non-capitalist economies into capitalism? It is not surprising that we are only beginning to pose these questions, let alone to find answers to them, for the effect of the theory of imperialism has been to deny to us the corpus of concepts developed in Marx’s Capital with which we could at least begin to find answers.

Theory and Politics

This is no mere “theoretical” weakness, for the structure of Marxism is such that theoretical problems nearly always have political concomitants. The political concomitant of the conceptual and explanatory impoverishment of Marxism inherent in the theory of imperialism has been an effective abandonment of the classical tradition’s optimism about the ultimate of “long-term” progressiveness of imperialism. This abandonment is, of course, the central focus of Bill Warren’s recent work. [1] Warren dates it to the 1928 Congress of the Comintern, and attributes it to the Soviet regime’s need to seek support among the nationalist movements of India and China, once it became clear that the Western European revolution for which the Bolsheviks had hoped in 1917 was not going to materialize. The price of such support, in Warren’s view, was the almost total emasculation of the classical “dialectical” view of imperialism originating from Marx’s writings on India (a dialectic of “short-term” destructiveness leading to a “long-term” progressiveness precisely through that initial destruction of pre-capitalist forms) in favor of a simple-minded “decline and fall” thesis. According to Warren, the post 1928 Comintern position is essentially unchanged in modern theories of “dependency” and “neo-colonialism.” Everything gets worse in the Third World from the moment capitalism impinges upon it, and cannot get better until capitalism is either got rid of altogether (the socialist version) or until it becomes a genuinely “indigenous” or “national” capitalism (the radical petty-bourgeois version).

Warren’s polemic lets a welcome gust of fresh air into a Marxist literature which has become little more than a cosy exercise in mutual reinforcement, in which the basic views of Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, Walter Rodney and others were swapped back and forth and then echoed by one acolyte after another in various parts of the Third World. My main reservation is that while it identifies a fundamental theoretical and political problem (the abandonment of a dialectical perspective which leaves the theory of imperialism wide open to “hijacking” by the most reactionary and chauvinistic forces in the Third World), its solution is to replace the “decline and fall” perspective of dependency theory with an equally simple-minded “progressivism” in which things are getting better and better all over the Third World thanks to the benign impact of international capital, seen almost purely in terms of the technological development of the productive forces. This abandons dialectics once again, and fails to engage with the historically and culturally specific features of individual Third World countries. Yet these features determine the particular manner in which international capital makes its impact, the particular forms of class, sexual and regional struggles which ensue, and indeed the extent to which either national or international capital is able to revolutionize the forces and relations of production in any particular context.

There is no hope of undertaking these kinds of analysis within the impoverished conceptual framework of the theory of imperialism, which focuses almost exclusively on the international economic relations of Third World countries with advanced capitalist countries and views both First World and Third World as monoliths. This leads to a downplaying of economic and social dynamics and to a highly attenuated picture of class struggle within Third World countries.

On the latter issue in particular, the most recent literature on imperialism and dependency is woefully inadequate. Even where (as in Frank’s more recent work, for example) the need for a “class perspective” on the Third World is admitted, this usually involves nothing more than the elaboration of a Manichean two-class model. On the one side are the local ruling elite or ruling class, the “comprador” or “managerial-bureaucratic” bourgeoisie, who, whatever first appearances, are always and ultimately the mere playthings of international capital. On the other side are “the masses” or “the people” struggling for liberation against a repressive alliance of local compradors and international capital. Even where attempts are made at slightly greater differentiation of “the people” (e.g., “the worker-peasant alliance”), analysis tends to focus on degrees of exploitation or on small income differences, “contradictions” which are always seen as “secondary” or “non-antagonistic,” leaving unaffected the essential unity of the popular struggle for national liberation.

Anti-Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Nationalism

There are two major omissions here. First, there is rarely any attempt to link the process of class differentiation of Third World societies to the uneven development of capitalist relations there. Where the latter is analyzed (for example, in Amin’s work on the Ivory Coast, or Frank’s studies of Brazil and Chile) the analysis takes a predominantly spatial form, focusing on inequalities between town and country or on regional inequalities. This, in turn, allows the analysis of “unevenness” to coexist (albeit uneasily) with the basically “dual” model of class structure in which a relatively homogeneous concept of “the masses” or “the people” stills holds sway.

Second, and of far more significance politically, the possibility of lasting or important conflicts of interest (“antagonist contradictions”) either between local ruling classes and international capital or within local ruling classes themselves is ruled out on an almost a priori basis. I would argue that the dominant “dependency” position on ruling classes in the Third World represents a definite step backward even compared with the 1928 Comintern position. For at least the resolutions of that Congress recognized the possibility of the existence of “nationalist” or “anti-imperialist” (and therefore “progressive”) fractions of the ruling classes in the colonies and semi-colonies.

But this was in the context of a national struggle against colonialism. With the effective end of formal colonialism, and the polemics of Frank and others against this aspect of the Communist Party line in the Third World, it is now almost “axiomatic” on the left that the only road to Third World liberation and development lies in total withdrawal from the world capitalist system into national “socialist” forms of semi-autarchy. The idea that there are or could be “national bourgeoisies” in the Third World who could lead a process of national capitalist development is more or less wholly discredited. I have argued elsewhere that this discrediting rests on an overly simple conception of what “national bourgeoisies” are and what they do. [2] In particular it assumes a degree of national independence or autonomy in capitalist development which is historically very rare even in the West, perhaps restricted in fact to the British case.

The combination of a populist conception of the “dependent” class structure (“the people” versus a narrow comprador elite) with an autarchic or quasi-autarchic conception of what real “national” development requires, has left many Third World Marxists with a very impoverished understanding of the present and a highly Utopian vision of the future. It supplies them, at the same time, with the elements of a quite powerful nationalist-populist rhetoric, ready made for convenient mixing with religious fundamentalism, xenophobic chauvinism and (in certain parts of Africa at least) even with a form of counter-racism.

Now the problem here is not simply that Marxist terminology and an anti-imperialist stance can be “hijacked” by social and political groups in the Third World hostile to many other values (secularism, internationalism, freedom of speech and expression, racial and cultural tolerance) which Marxists have traditionally considered an integral part of socialism. After all, “progressive” political ideas have often been pinched and reproduced, in a suitably domesticated form, by forces of the center and right. The point is rather that the very structure and explanatory stress of what has passed for “Marxism” in many parts of the Third World has made it eminently “available” for such hijacking. And here we should be clear in our understanding. It is not that theoretical shortcomings in the theory of imperialism and related literature have led to nationalist and populist forms of anti- imperialism being so common in the Third World. This would be a highly “idealist” way of seeing the problem. The point is rather that from the earliest years of the Comintern what has passed for Marxism in the Third World has had a heavy admixture of nationalism and populism. This admixture was itself the product of the colonial and imperialist domination (and of the response to it) in which that Marxism was formed.

In the Communist Manifesto we see “the bourgeoisie” quite clearly predicated with the progressive role of national unification of “independent or but loosely connected provinces,” and with elaboration of an ideology of unification (“nationalism”) as part of the fulfillment of that role. If we see Third World Marxism as in origin the most “advanced” or uncompromising expression of anti- colonial nationalism, we can see it as playing an important ideological role (partly in substitution of weak or dependent bourgeoisies) in laying the foundations of national independence, and thus in creating the political prerequisites of the further growth and spread of the capitalist mode of production in the world. It is odd that Warren, who in other areas demonstrates a strong evolutionist perspective of just this type, does not have a good word to say for concepts of “dependency” or “neo-colonialism,” if only on these grounds.

In the current phase of the development of capitalism, however, it has already become in a very real and profound sense a system of production on a world scale. In this phase it is doubtful that any kind of radical nationalism, whether it be Bennism in Britain or ujamaa in Tanzania or the Islamic Republic in Iran, represents an adequate response to the contradictions generated at a world level, or that they hold out any real hope of “national” development (even in their own terms). It is incumbent upon Marxists everywhere to define themselves much more firmly against the populist analyses and visions which seek the chimerical goal of “national” development (even of a socialist sort) down some autarchic or quasi-autarchic road. There are reasons for believing that all “national” roads to development are now blocked, and that even in the past they were a lot more rare and qualified than often supposed. What is at stake now, and in a very concrete way, is simply the form of internationalism to be assumed in the process of development. Capitalism already offers multinational corporations and the European Economic Community. It is up to socialists to find others that do not simply reproduce capitalist forms of domination and subordination in other guises. In that task we must clear our heads, make our internationalism more than a rhetorical “optional extra” to be trotted out at international congresses, and certainly stop providing an assorted array of chauvinists with ideological fig leaves to cover their nakedness.


[1] Bill Warren, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1980).
[2] Gavin Kitching, “The Role of a National Bourgeoisie in the Current Phase of Capitalist Development: Some Reflections,” in Paul Lubeck, ed., The African Bourgeoisie: Capitalist Development in the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Nigeria (Princeton, 1981).

How to cite this article:

Gavin Kitching "The Theory of Imperialism and Its Consequences," Middle East Report 100 (October-December 1981).

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