The theory of imperialism is in profound disarray. Many have recognized that dependency theory is inadequate to the task of analyzing the international capitalist economy, [1] while the touchstone of all Marxist analysis of imperialism—Lenin’s Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism—has been questioned as the authentic expression of the Marxist theory of international production and distribution. [2] No fully developed alternative has gained currency in the English-speaking Marxist community. Bill Warren, in his posthumously published Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, seeks to offer a genuinely Marxist approach to imperialism, free of the politically motivated “deviations” perpetrated by Lenin and the dependency school. Warren does criticize Lenin’s theory and the dependency approach with some success empirically. The basis for a more correct analysis of imperialism, however, is not simply the demolition of erroneous positions, but a correct theoretical reconstruction. Warren is less than successful in this second part of his program.

Notwithstanding the significant differences between Lenin and the dependency school, they shared a common vision of the international capitalist economic system as one involving combined and uneven development. Warren exposes some of their errors in dealing with this phenomenon, but he does it by ruling the phenomenon itself out of existence. This alerts us to the radical character of Warren’s position. His critique is directed not only at specific theories of imperialism, but at the most commonly accepted meanings of the term among Marxists. Warren rejects the general understanding that imperialism is regressive, in the sense that it inhibits the development of forces and relations of production in the “dominated areas,” and asserts that imperialism is a progressive force—that as the carrier of capitalism to areas previously dominated by pre-capitalist organization it fosters economic, political and moral development.

Warren correctly points out that the same position was held by Marx himself in his early writings—particularly in the Communist Manifesto and the journalistic writings. [3] Proceeding in a one-sided manner from Marx’s comments, Warren suggests that capitalism is always and everywhere progressive, that it everywhere develops forces and relations of production, and that it everywhere propagates humanistic culture celebrating the worth of the individual.

On the political level, Warren departs from the realm of experience to argue that, contrary to all appearances, bourgeois democracy is the “normal” political form of capitalism—where “normality” appears ta refer not to statistical regularities, but to the immanent nature of things. On the economic level, Warren devotes no less than eight pages to proving that the Third World is in fact in the process of industrialization. In developing this proposition, he does not discriminate between developments fomented by imperialism and those of a different origin, nor does he reflect upon the forms of this industrialization and its geographical distribution. [4] On the moral-intellectual level, Warren wisely restricts his evidence to the triumphs of the advanced capitalist world, suggesting that the abominations of two world wars and fascism should be considered abnormal deviations from the fundamentally humanizing trends of capitalist civilization. In a truly Ricardian fashion, Warren suggests that absolute openness to trade and capital flows is the condition for maximum national capitalist development, with all its associated advantages. Consequently, one of the forces most diametrically opposed to development is the national independence struggle.

One would expect such a radical revision of the Marxist approach to imperialism to be accompanied by the most rigorous elucidation of the facts of the matter. Warren does not offer this. (Such a failure might be attributable to the incomplete nature of the manuscript at the time of Warren’s death.) Nevertheless, to dismiss Warren’s thesis lightly would not do justice to the seriousness of the issues involved. Warren’s is a very serious misunderstanding of the nature of Marxist analysis—a misunderstanding which, paradoxically, was shared by Marx himself at certain stages of his intellectual development. It is precisely the fact that Warren reproduces Marx’s own errors that lends his work a certain credibility and persuasiveness.

Warren exhibits two characteristic elements of Hegelian thought found to a limited extent in Marx’s early work—hypostatization and universalization. Hypostatization can be defined as that ideological practice in which things are represented as the determinants of the process which in fact produced them. Universalization refers to the notion that the dominant idea of an epoch shapes all of reality in its own image. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto we encounter “capitalism” as a subject reproducing/extending itself on a global/universal level. This is precisely what Warren, following the young Marx, puts at the heart of his reconstructed Marxist theory of imperialism: capitalism spreads itself, becoming a single total pattern of social relations. Warren correctly deduces that imperialism must therefore be seen as a progressive force. However, as Marx shows in the critique of ideology in volume one of Capital, it is not capitalism that creates social relations, but social relations—relations among classes—which create capitalism. For the later Marx, capitalism is a class construct subject to the development of class forces and class interests.

In adhering to the young Marx, Warren is committed to a view of imperialism in which the international development of capitalist production is quite abstracted from the conflict among classes and among capitals. Even the dependency theorists emphasize the primacy of social relations. Lenin stressed that it is not “capitalism” that is dominant in imperialism, but the capitalist classes of the imperialist powers. The organization of imperialism, he argued, goes through distinct phases corresponding to the specific crises of capital accumulation encountered by the dominant classes according to the level of their organization of the system of production and property. These theories analyze imperialism in a seriously flawed manner, but this cannot justify Warren’s total rejection of their epistemological contribution—primacy of social relations and dialectical reconstruction of systems.

If Warren wanted to treat these theories as ideologies, he would have done well to remember Marx’s comment on religion—that it is false, but nonetheless rooted in reality. The proper Marxist response to their flaws should attempt to elucidate the class formations at both “core” and “periphery” which determine that the structure of imperialism be combined and unequal development. Warren rightly points out that there has been altogether too much emphasis upon the interests of the “core” in the analysis of imperialist structures, and he berates those dependency theorists who see the dominant classes of the “periphery” as simple tools of “core” powers. But he does not use this point of departure to elaborate the impact of internal class formations and struggles upon the mode of insertion of “peripheral” productive systems into the international economy. [5]

Warren’s inattention to class follows the principle of the poisoned fruit of the poisoned branch: any reference to the exploitative interests of the classes that construct capitalism/imperialism would inevitably call into doubt the progressive character of the system as a whole. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in his discussion of the positive effects of imperialist development. Marx saw imperialism as progressive—insofar as it created the social forces upon which the transition to communism would be based. Marx’s primary interest in imperialism was in its impact upon class structure. Warren’s reflections upon imperialist advances in no way refer to developments on the level of relations of production and class organization. His point of reference is consumption rather than production. This becomes a critical issue in relation to the so-called “marginal” urban population of Third World countries. Warren rejects the significance of differentiating between this group and those involved in the more “formal” sector. They do, in fact, contribute to GDP, and they are better off than they were in the countryside. However, this “marginal” population enjoys particular relations of production which create major obstacles to its entry into revolutionary proletarian politics.

Warren’s analysis rests upon a vision of clockwork capitalism, a vision with the most pernicious political implications. If capitalism creates the conditions for communism, then the role of the communist party is to do everything in its power to further capitalist accumulation—presumably against the everyday struggles of workers. In offering the simplistic (and false) assertion that capitalism creates the conditions for communism, and that imperialism is the agency for the development of the “periphery,” Warren trivializes the vital practical questions confronting the progressive forces of both “core” and “periphery.” This completely abolished the issue of how an advanced economic class in the “core” is transformed through political and ideological struggle into a revolutionary class. It abolishes the real world question of progressive forces in the periphery: what alliances are necessary to put an end to political repression and economic exploitation, and what are the implications of this for the forms of socialism viable there? The whole point of Marxism, as opposed to utopianism, is the identification of real forces and contradictions in order that effective political strategies can be developed. Warren’s intervention seems premised on the notion that such strategies are unnecessary within the terms of an implicit, popular and unproved proposition that all things come to those who wait. Those who follow Warren’s advice are likely to find themselves waiting at the wrong station for a train that will never come.


[1] Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London, 1977) pp. 15-50.
[2] See C. Palloix, Travail et production (Paris, 1979); Giovanni Arrighi, The Geometry of Imperialism (London, 1978).
[3] For example, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Colonialism (Moscow, 1959).
[4] For an earlier critique of Warren’s position more oriented to the immediate economic issues raised, see James Petras, P. McMichael and R. Rhodes, “Industrialization in the Third World,” in James Petras, Critical Perspectives on Imperialism and Social Class in the Third World (New York, 1978), pp. 103-136.
[5] As is suggested by F. H. Cardoso and E. Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America (Berkeley, 1979), pp. xiv-xviii.

How to cite this article:

Gary Nigel Howe "Warren’s Revision of the Marxist Critique," Middle East Report 117 (September 1983).

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