Understanding imperialism part one by phil sharpe

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The only organisation that has provided a comprehensive analysis of imperialism has been the SWP, notably in the work of Alex Callinicos and John Rees. (1) They have been able to develop a coherent conception of imperialism since the Second World War because the theory of state capitalism means that it is possible to conceive of the bi-polar system of rivalry between the USA and the USSR in terms of the tension between imperialist powers. These supporters of the SWP standpoint ignore the importance of the ideological aspects of the opposition between the USSR and the USA and instead emphasise the role of the arms race. This enables them to suggest that the USA was the most powerful and dynamic imperial power between 1945 and the early 1970’s, but the demise of the bi-polar system has led to the rise of new rivals like Germany and China. Rees develops the following conclusion: “In these circumstances competitive pressures that arise in the economic sphere can only ultimately be resolved in the political sphere – that is at the level of the relations between states. States ultimately decide the fate of the corporations in general precisely because, although competing corporations have needs and interests, they do not have the capacity, other than through the state, to articulate a ‘general will’ of their own. Capital can exist as many capitals noted Karl Marx. This is simply the logical corollary of accepting that capitalism is a system of competition between different units of capital, be they corner shops or multi-national corporations. And the logical corollary of this is that only the state can form the ‘executive committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie’. The state becomes the arbiter, ultimately by means of force, of the disputes arising in the field of economic competition.”(2)

In other words the conclusion being made by Rees is that the generation of serious economic competition between capitalist nation states will ultimately result in war, and the character of imperialism is reduced to the role of the state acting on behalf of capital. In this context the doubtful perspective is adopted that contemporary inter-imperialist rivalry will result in war, and the political action of states is projected with an imperialist character and so the role of the economic and political is conflated. It is not possible to distinguish the specific character of the political and economic in this context and so instead the question of what constitutes imperialism becomes reduced to a question of power. Thus America is the most powerful country because it is the most significant capitalist nation and so on. The result of this situation is that American hegemony continually creates the basis for tension, conflict and war. Callinicos is aware of these dogmatic tensions. Hence he is content to support the following cautious perspective: “Of course, there is no reason to assume that history will repeat itself. But any understanding of contemporary imperialism that fails to take into account the tensions and potential fractures among the leading powers is dangerously one-sided.”(3) Note the omission of any prediction that rivalry will result in war. Instead he is content to suggest that the decline of the hegemony of the USA is connected to the ascendency of regional and national economic and political states. But he still makes concessions to the prospect of conflict (war) in the following comment: “Consequently, despite the real asymmetries of power between the US and the other leading capitalist states, significant conflicts of interest exist among them (and indeed other states such as Russia and China) that are likely in the context of the continuing ‘long downturn’ to give rise to geo-political struggles.”(4)

However what is most important about Callinicos’s approach is his recognition of the importance of David Harvey’s conception of two dialectical related logics in the development of the capitalist form of imperialism: “The thought is, then, that capitalist imperialism is constituted by the intersection of two forms of competition, namely economic and geo-political. Economic competition…….as one of the two interconnected relations constitutive of capital; geopolitical competition compromises the rivalries among states over security, territory, influence and the like.”(5) Unfortunately Callinicos fails to develop an analysis in these terms and instead resorts to an empirical history of the rise of finance capital in the USA combined with an international relations type understanding of the geo-political interests that the American state has in maintaining its hegemony. What is not outlined is the relationship between globalisation and imperialism. Instead it is necessary to utilise the work of Callinicos’s mentor, David Harvey. (6)

Harvey outlines the two contrasting logics of imperialism in the following manner: “What Arrighi refers to as the ‘territorial’ and the ‘capitalist’ logics of power differ from each other. To begin with, the motivations and interests of agents differ. The capitalist holding money capital will wish to put it wherever profits can be had, and typically seeks to accumulate more capital. Politicians and statesmen typically seek outcomes that sustain or augment the power of their own states vis-à-vis other states. The capitalist seeks individual advantage and (though usually constrained by law) is responsible to no one other than his or her immediate social circle, while the statesman seeks a collective advantage and is constrained by the political and military situation of the state and is in some sense or other responsible to a citizenry or, more often to an elite group, a class, a kinship structure, or some other social group. The capitalist operates in continuous space and time, whereas the politician operates in a territorialized space, and at least in democracies, in a temporality dictated by an electoral cycle. On the other hand, capitalist firms come and go, shift locations, merge, or go out of business, but states are long-lived entities, cannot migrate and are, except under exceptional circumstance of geographical conquest, confined within fixed territorial boundaries.”(7)

This approach can be applied to the history of imperialism. In the period 1850-1914 the logic of capital was to create a world economy based on free trade and the international development of the productive forces. Britain was the most developed capitalist country and it promoted the importance of free trade. But the rise of other dynamic capitalist counties led to the promotion of imperialist expansion based on the annexation of colonies in order to obtain protected markets and raw materials. However these colonies were not as important as the role of trade within Europe and between Europe and America. The logic of capital was more important than the geopolitical logic to promote the creation of colonies. Lenin and Bukharin argued that imperialism was based on the increasing structural importance of monopoly and finance capital which meant that this development was connected to the creation of rival empires. Lenin also utilised the concept of uneven development to explain the geo-political importance of inter-imperialist rivalry and war. The increasing dynamism of Germany meant it became a rival to Britain and was increasing concerned to form a colonial empire. This tension led to the prospect of war.(8) The point is that without the influence of antagonisms between states free trade may have enabled capitalism to develop in a peaceful manner as Joseph Schumpeter argues.(9) But the contrasting economic formation of monopoly capital, that led to the contradiction between the requirements of the productive forces, (because they aimed to develop at the level of the world economy) and the nation state, led to the increasing combination of the inter-action of capitalist and territorial logics. This development resulted in the dynamics of inter-imperialist rivalry. However it is also necessary to outline that this tension also took the important ideological form of opposition between liberal democracy and the authoritarianism of Imperial Germany.

After the war it was the formation of liberal democracy in Germany, combined with an economic relationship with America, which partially overcame the dynamics of inter-imperialist rivalry. There was the revival of the world economy based on free trade and the most antagonistic relationship was between the USSR and the various imperialist states. (10) However the economic depression of 1929-32 led to the emergence of protectionist states and the collapse of free trade. This resulted in the dynamics of the geo-political logic asserted by imperialist states, and the advent of Fascism was the personification of an imperialist ideology that upheld the view that war would bring economic progress. In other words the role of ideology was primary for the German state of Hitler and his defence of imperialism: “The basic premise of the racial superiority of the Aryan justified the assertion of imperial domination over those races deemed inferior and subject. Yet it was also empirically open-ended, for this superiority depended ultimately on success in the struggle of all against all. In a sense it was a hypothesis to be tested. The ‘failure’ of Germany in World War One and its subsequent ignominy could be ‘explained’ by the ‘stab in the back’ argument based on the thesis of racial contamination. Once the race had been purged of its racial impurities it was free to fulfil its destiny……But the only proof of this was in war itself. National socialism –or Hitler’s version of it, was essentially an imperialist ideology.”(11) In this sense the geo-political logic of the German Nazi state, which was based on the primacy of the ideology of racism and imperialism, was an important aspect of the development of World War two. The Nazi state had a political logic of war that meant the attempts of British and French Imperialism and the USSR to accommodate German imperialism was futile. The war of Japanese imperialism corresponded to the logic of capital in that its formation of an empire would be about the attainment of scarce raw materials. This aim resulted in opposition to the American aim of control of the Pacific area.

In other words the tendency towards World War Two was not inevitable. If the serious economic crisis of the 1930’s had not taken place, and the Nazi’s had been prevented from taking power, the tensions of that decade may have been resolved in a peaceful manner. Hence inter-imperialist conflict may have been limited to the regional rivalry between America and Japan. Thus it was a serious defeat of the working class in Germany that prepared the basis for the prospect of world war. Trotsky outlines the imperialist dynamic of National Socialism: “Hitler’s official slogans in general do not warrant examination. The struggle for “national unification” has long since been shown to be a lie, for Hitler is converting the national state into a state of many nations, trampling underfoot the liberty and unity of other peoples. The struggle for “living room” is nothing but camouflage for imperialist expansion, that is the policy of annexation and plunder……..The sole feature of fascism which is not counterfeit is its will to power, subjugation and plunder. Fascism is a chemically pure distillation of the culture of imperialism.”(12) Hence the victory of counterrevolution has generated the dynamics towards the prospect of inter-imperialist war, and war against the USSR. In contrast the defeat of fascism would have meant progress for peace and the diminishing of the tendencies leading to the prospect of world war.

However it is also necessary to recognise that the prospect of war in 1939 was expressed by Lenin’s understanding of the importance of monopoly capital and its relation to the creation of inter-imperialist tensions. The period 1870-1945 corresponded brilliantly to the understanding of imperialism provided by Hilferding, Lenin, Luxemburg, Bukharin and Trotsky. This theoretical achievement can be summed up by Harvey who argued that the formation of protectionist empires as a response to the economic crisis of the 1930’s (A crisis of over-accumulation, or glut of surplus capital that could not be profitably invested) undermined the fluid movement of capital and hindered the prospect of the generation of profits based on free trade. The result was inter-imperialist rivalry and war. Hence geo-political logic undermined the dynamic logic of capital that transcends territorial spaces: “The formation of closed Empires after the First World War almost certainly played a role in the inability to solve the over-accumulation problem of the 1930’s and laid the economic groundwork for the territorial conflicts of the Second World War. The territorial logic dominated and frustrated the capitalist logic, thus forcing the latter into an almost terminal crisis through territorial conflict.”(13) But it is important to recognise that this understanding has to be connected to the importance of ideology and the formation of aggressive states like Germany if the economic approach is not to become one-sided.

It is also necessary to indicate that the economic rivalry between the two major economically dominant powers, the USA and UK, led Trotsky and the Comintern to predict the possibility of war between these rival nations. (14) This mistaken standpoint indicated that economic determinism could become the basis for dogma if applied without proper evaluation of all aspects of the issue involved. The USA and UK had become longstanding political allies and the USA had intervened to support the UK in the First World War. Roosevelt was to provide material support for the UK in the Second World War and eventually was to enter the war as an ally of the UK. Hence the issue about which country should be the hegemon of the world economy had to be resolved by peaceful means. The various settlements of the Second World War led to the acceptance by the UK of its secondary status and recognition of the dominant role of the USA. The very condition of being Allies meant that their antagonism had to be solved by peaceful methods. Reluctantly the UK accepted a status of being the subordinate partner of the USA. However this development had an economic or capital logic because the hegemonic position of the dominant role of the USA meant the world economy was able to flourish. Marshall Aid was used to integrate the economies of countries like France, West Germany and the UK into the capitalist world economy led by the USA. This also meant that inter-imperialist antagonisms were temporarily overcome because the leadership of the USA was to the benefit of all the advanced capitalist countries. Stalin’s prediction that inter-imperialist antagonisms would be generated by the decreasing size of the capitalist world economy seemed a dogmatic perspective. (15)

In this situation the character of inter-imperialist rivalry became expressed by the bi-polar conflict between the USA and USSR. The USA was the hegemonic power that led the capitalist countries against the Soviet system that rejected incorporation into the capitalist world economy. The USSR promoted a type of geo-political imperialism that was based on the motivating aims of security and power: “So in Stalin’s view the uncertainties posed by the independence of these border states, and the distinct possibility that Germany would rise again, meant that his control over the border states was essential to Soviet security. What he could not mention was the fact that the USA with its nuclear monopoly was also a potential danger. If the Soviet Union did not create a border zone of neutralized or allied countries then major Soviet industrial zones were exposed to attack from forward American bases.”(16) The theorists of the SWP ignore these aspects and instead emphasise arms competition between rival forms of capitalism. (16)However, Callinicos is careful to accept that the cold war tension between the USA and USSR was an expression of geo-political competition. What is ignored by the SWP is the aspect of ideology that motivates struggle between the supposed forces of socialism and capitalism. In this context it is difficult to recognise the economic logic of the Vietnam War but this war is comprehensible in terms of the aim of the containment of communism: “The same is true of American involvement in Indo-China, where the massive costs of intervention in Vietnam cannot be connected to any obvious economic motivation.”(18)

In the 1970’s the economic situation was characterised by an increasing crisis of over-accumulation of surplus capital because of falling profit rates.(19) The response of the capitalist class was a neo-liberal offensive which was connected to the movement of surplus capital to areas that could generate high levels of profit. The result was the formation of globalisation and the development of trans-nationals whose activity was increasingly not inhibited by the limitations of a geographical character. They frequently moved location in order to achieve the highest levels of profit. This meant the geo-political character of the nation state was subordinated to the capital logic of globalisation: “At issue here is the capture of the state by global capital or its reorientation towards the interests vested in the globalisation process. In this context the role of the new neoliberal state can be defined in terms of three critical functions: (1) to adopt fiscal and monetary policies that ensure macroeconomic stability; (2)to provide the basic infrastructure necessary for global economic activity; (3)to provide social control, order and stability. The role of the neoliberal state proscribed by these three functions has been to facilitate accumulation on a global scale and, it would seem, to regulate labour…..To assume this role, the state has generally downsized, decentralized and modernized, and has had its regulatory and policy making capacities hollowed out.”(20) Thus the welfare state of the post-war period has been effectively dismantled and replaced by a neo-liberal state that is more ruthlessly dedicated to the priorities of capital. This process has been realised by the intensification of the class struggle and the undermining of the influence of the trade unions.

An important reason for the development of globalisation has been the aim of space-time compression which is described by Harvey: “The reasons behind the tendency towards what Marx has called the ‘annihilation of space through time’…..is an incessant drive towards the reduction if not elimination of spatial barriers, coupled with equally incessant impulses towards the acceleration in the turnover of capital. The reduction in cost and time of movement has proven a compelling necessity of a capitalist mode of production. The trend towards ‘globalization’ is inherent in this, and the evolution of the geographical landscape of capitalist activity is driven remorselessly by round after round of time-space compression.”(21) Harvey would qualify this definition and suggest that the world economy is still based on the hegemony of US imperialism and the formation of powerful regional economic blocs. But the logic of capital is to transcend national boundaries and to assume ever increasing rapid mobility and to become more fluid and international. What this means in practice is that the traditional and self-sufficient industries of many countries are undermined by the priorities of financial capital and the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and IMF. The aims of the Transnational Corporations representing the logic of globalisation replace the priorities of national governments. The result is privatisation and the promotion of what Harvey has called ‘accumulation by dispossession’: “What accumulation by dispossession does is to release a set of assets (including labour power) at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Over-accumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use. In the case of primitive accumulation as Marx described it, this entailed taking land, say, enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the private mainstream of capital accumulation. Privatisation (of social housing, telecommunications, transportation, water, etc. in Britain, for example) has, in recent years, opened up vast fields for over-accumulated capital to seize upon.”(22) Using the role of the state it is possible for the forces of capital to seize assets of workers and peasants and turn them into areas of profitable investment. This process has been an important aim of the interests of globalisation. In other words the economic logic of capital, under the auspices of the protection of the USA imperial state, and the international financial institutions, is to impoverish the countries of the world in the interests of the TNC’s: “The over-accumulation crisis refers to the massive growth of profits with shrinking space for investment at acceptable rates of return. Put another way, the more capital grew within the bounds of the nation state, the smaller the rate of profit as more capital pursued small market shares……The reactionary solution, the one pursued was to break down internal constraints on external movements to overseas markets, in the process forcing down domestic costs over the long term. Globalist classes look at the mass of local producers in part as a cost, not simply a market. Globalization was a solution to the over-accumulation crisis on terms acceptable to the investor class.”(23)

This meant the over-accumulation crisis was being resolved at the expense of the economic and social requirements of the majority of the world population. The true meaning of imperialism was the undermining of the economic needs of the people of the world in the interest of the capital system. In this context it could be categorically argued that imperialism as the expression of the capital logic of globalisation was historically reactionary and did not promote a balanced development of the productive forces in the nations under the domination of the TNC’s. Only countries that acquired the status of sub-imperialism like South Korea, or became imperialist like China, could uphold an independent form of economy. But this process was still ultimately determined by the logic of globalisation. John Rees sums up the situation: “A study by World Bank economists shows that the ratio between the rich and poorest country was nearly 8 to one in 1870, 38 to one in 1960 and stood at 45 to one in 1990. The wealthiest 20 per cent of nations dispose of over 84 per cent of global GDP, account for 84 percent of global trade and possess 85 per cent of domestic savings.”(24)

However by abstracting from the reactionary logic of capital, Workers Liberty have justified a limited progressive role to the geo-political intervention by the USA in Iraq: “A new US-built regime in Iraq, even one extremely bad from our socialist and democratic viewpoint, may be able to get sizeable popular assent by virtue of being less hideously terroristic than Saddam, re-opening the regular oil-revenue flow, and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. That may give it some solidity.”(25) This comment underestimates how the economic logic of USA intervention means that the economy of Iraq is subordinated to the interests of capital. ‘Accumulation by dispossession’ was the effective result rather than the predicted economic development and limited political freedom. USA intervention has not resulted in Iraq being able to overcome the dislocating effects of military action, and it is still a failed state that is now being undermined by the actions of ‘Islamic State’. The anti-war position of the article is undermined by the conception of a progressive imperialism. Workers Liberty contends that economic development is possible under the domination of imperialism. This is true and is not contested, but what they effectively ignore is the role of the neo-liberal offensive and therefore they lack a political economy of the quality of David Harvey and other commentators. Instead of an acute economic analysis the supporters of Workers Liberty assume that capitalist development will result from globalisation. (26) The point is that this view does not explain the actual priorities of globalisation and that the expression of capital logic is often at the expense of viable domestic industries and rural production.


Imperialism is an elastic term that can be applied to historical eras before capitalism such as the Roman Empire, or refer to specific periods in the development of capitalism which promoted expansion in economic and political terms. It is also necessary to be very precise in the latter instance, and so the monopoly capital phase of imperialism can refer to the period 1870-1945, the bi-polar system 1945-1991, and the promotion of globalisation since the late 1970’s. Unfortunately the Marxist Left utilise the term imperialism in a less precise manner, and often utilise it exclusively as a term of political criticism in relation to the geo-political actions of the USA and UK. What is important is to establish a methodology that is able to comprehend the causes of the actions of the major capitalist countries. This criterion is outlined most adequately by David Harvey in terms of the role of geo-political and capital logics. It is consequently possible to understand that events like the Vietnam War were not primarily about the importance of economics and instead referred to the aim of containing the expansion of Stalinism and maintaining the American sphere of influence. American foreign policy in the bi-polar era was about maintaining pro-capitalist regimes which had various levels of economic importance. In contrast, Stalinism wanted to overcome capitalism and extend the strategic importance of the Soviet empire. This aim was undermined by the Sino-Soviet split and China became an independent country.

It is an arguable point (which will be outlined in more detail in part three) whether the EU, China, and South-East Asia, have become rivals of America in the era of globalisation. Harvey and Callinicos would argue that this is what has occurred. However it is also important to recognise that the various dominant capitalist regional blocs or countries share a crucial objective which is to maintain a common world economy that is defined as globalisation. In this context the various capitalist countries come together at the G8 or G20 summits in order to plan economic policy and establish united political attitudes concerning diplomatic issues. In this context disunity has been temporary and it could be considered to be premature to regard the differences that have developed as an expression of emerging inter-imperialist conflicts. Instead the elites of the most important capitalist countries still have much to gain from globalisation and the leadership of the USA. Since the end of the Second World War there has been an effective unity of what were previously imperialist rivals: “A high degree of regulation and cooperation existed both in the political and economic spheres, and this was reflected in formal treaties and in a growing number of international agencies and institutions. On the face of it, capitalism appeared to have achieved a measure of unity inconceivable to Lenin.”(27) The increasing importance of China is based on its economic and financial relationship with the USA, and so the possibility of antagonism between the USA and China is still a future prospect. But the emergence of a viable Russian capitalism, based on the role of state intervention, is creating inter-imperialist contradictions.(28) The expansionist aim of Russia to expand its influence in the Ukraine is in conflict with the geo-political ambitions of the USA to increase the pro-American number of states in the areas of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. This is a geo-political aspect of inter-imperialist tension. Russia has indicated its ability to expand into the Ukraine despite American opposition and this has resulted in the imposition of sanctions. (But is also important to note that Russia has significant trade with the EU and so aims to maintain its political relations with the EU) However this tension is still specific and so the League for a Fifth International is premature to consider that the stability of the cold war period has come to an end: “In the global imperialist system today there are no stable camps as there was during the Second World war and Cold War. Confrontation in one part of the world can go along with cooperation in another, very similar to the competition that exists between capitalist monopolies, which might also cooperate in one project or market and fiercely attack each other in another one.”(29) This comment seriously underestimates the importance of the continued hegemony of the USA and the particular character of the USA-USSR antagonism. This tension is the result of specific geo-political contradictions rather than the expression of increasing problems within the relations between imperialist countries. Russia is a country that is not yet fully incorporated within the global economy because of its reliance on the production of raw materials and the economic role of state intervention. Furthermore, the antagonistic legacy of the cold war has not been overcome in terms of the continued rivalry with the USA. Hence this tension should not yet be considered as an expression of the development of generalised inter-imperialist antagonisms.

Consequently in relation to understanding the character of contemporary imperialism the antagonist of the working class is global capital led by the USA. This system is intensely reactionary and destructive of the material conditions that could promote the transition to world socialism However, Tony Smith argues that: “Perhaps the greatest of capital’s many powers is the power to constrict the political imagination. Of all its powers, this is probably the most difficult to resist. Today an increasing number of progressive individuals and groups accept the ‘common sense’ view that the means of production must be predominantly private owned and controlled for an efficiently and normatively acceptable global system. The long view of history does not support this surmise. The flaws of capitalism, and the creative capacities of humanity, are both too great for us to abandon the search for a feasible alternative to global capitalism.”(30) Thus it is not impossible to transform imperialism and globalisation. Human beings can bring about change. But this requires a strategy (analysed in part two) that is able to overcome the domination of the TNC’s and the logic of capital accumulation. In this sense it is necessary to promote internationalism and connected recognition of the limitations of national politics. The various ruling classes effectively act in international terms, even if there is not a trans-national class, and so it is vital that the working class of all countries unite to end the domination of imperialism and global capitalism.


(1)Alex Callinicos: Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Polity Press, 2009

John Rees: Imperialism and Resistance, Routledge, London, 2006

(2)Rees ibid p66-67

(3)Callinicos op cit p222

(4) ibid p17

(5) ibid p15

(6)David Harvey: The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2003

(7) ibid p27

(8)Tom Kemp: Theories of Imperialism, Dobson Books, London, 1967 p78

(9)Joseph Schumpeter: Imperialism and Social Classes, Meridian Books, New York, 1951 p70-98

(10)Phil Sharpe: Critique of the 1928 Comintern Programme in Socialist Standpoint number 4

(11) Charles Reynolds: Modes of Imperialism, Martin Robertson, Oxford, 1982 p136

(12)Leon Trotsky: Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, Writings, 1939-40, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973 p193

(13)Harvey op cit p140

(14)Callinicos op cit p151

(15)Phil Sharpe: Stalin’s Political Economy, in Socialist Standpoint Number 6, 2015

(16)Reynolds op cit p40

(17)Rees op cit p10-13, Callinicos p174-175

(18)Reynolds op cit p99

(19)Harvey op cit p139-143

(20)James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer: Globalization Unmasked, Zed Books, London 2001 p23-24

(21)Harvey op cit p98

(22) ibid p149

(23)Petras op cit p48

(24)Rees op cit p107

(25)Colin Foster: The USA as Hyperpower, Workers Liberty, Volume 2, Number 3, 2002 p12-13

(26)Martin Thomas: “Two Critiques, ‘Empire’ and New Imperialism op cit p34

(27)Reynolds op cit p87

(28)Resolution of the League for a Fifth International: The Resurrection of Russian Imperialism, in Fifth International, Number 15 Autumn 2014 p33-48

(29) ibid p46

(30)Tony Smith: Globalisation: A Systematic Marxist Account, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2005 p343-344

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