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Is ‘imperialism’ (just) history?

Imperialism is a particular feature of capitalism that is still with us today – but how has it developed over time, asks the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

IMPERIALISM is the rule of one state (or rather its ruling class) over another territory and its population, exercised by military force or political and economic domination.  

And it’s alive and well, though it has changed its spots a bit since Marx’s day.  

Pre-capitalist empires have a long history, from well before imperial Rome to the feudal Mongol empire — an all-time second only to the British empire in extent but based on plunder and tribute.  

But imperialism is a particular feature of capitalism today and intrinsic to its development. 

Early mercantile capitalism arguably first appeared with the expansion of Islam in the 9th century and in Europe from the 12th century, becoming a significant economic force with the colonisation of the Americas from the 16th century.  

Imperial ambitions were typically secured through colonisation — from the seizure of territory by direct force to its appropriation and control through financial, trade and political means, including the bribery or vassalage of domestic elites.  

Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain expanded its imperial holdings around the globe and its ruling class enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance.  

The “Pax Britannica” was in fact a continual series of colonial wars, accompanying a rhetoric of “free trade” that gave British capital its dominant position in world commerce.  

At its height in the early 1920s the British empire — the largest in the world — covered well over a quarter of the Earth’s surface.  

Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was written in 1916 in the midst of the first world war.  

It built critically on the work of others, in particular the English economist JA Hobson, the Austrian and Polish Marxist Rudolf Hilferding, and (though not referenced in the text) Rosa Luxemburg.  

Lenin argued that imperialism represented a new stage in the development of capitalism where great power rivalry had necessarily culminated in “an annexationist, predatory, plunderous war” over territory and resources.  

The roots of this new type of imperialism lay in the growth of monopoly capitalism and the fusion of bank and industrial capital into what Hilferding called “finance capital.”

This produced new internal contradictions including the closure of the world market and the end of free competition.  

This in turn resulted in the need to export capital (rather than goods) to exploit labour and other resources elsewhere.  

The resulting profits enabled the co-option of a dominant class in the colonised territories and concessions to a growing labour aristocracy “at home” to defuse the prospects of unrest and revolution.  

Lenin quotes the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes: “The empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.” 

The Irish war of independence in 1919-21 led to the creation of the Irish Free State but Britain gained control of former German and Ottoman colonies and had a practically continuous line of controlled territories from Egypt to Burma and another one from Cairo to Cape Town.  

However World War I decisively weakened Britain’s position in the world, and recession in the 1930s led to a retrenchment of finance capital at the same time as Britain’s imperial dominance was challenged by the emergence of independence movements in the old imperial dominions. 

The second world war also had “imperial” foundations, particularly in relation to German territorial expansion — first Austria (the “Anschluss”), then Czechoslovakia and from 1939 large areas of Europe, starting with Poland.  

Japan had already invaded China in 1932 and Italy seized Ethiopia in 1936. But this new imperialism (and the war) was closely linked to the emergence of a new phenomenon: fascism.  

And as a previous answer has argued, fascism itself was (and is) a reaction to the crisis of capitalism and the challenge posed by socialist movements.  

Following the war, decolonisation and national liberation movements arose nearly everywhere in what during the cold war became known as the Third World, resulting in Indian independence and partition in 1947 and the establishment of independent states in the 1950s.  

With the United States and Soviet Union emerging from World War II as the sole superpowers, Britain’s role as a worldwide player declined significantly and rapidly following the Suez “crisis” of 1956.  

In all the capitalist nations, the processes that led to the 1914-18 war continue today, but with some important developments since Lenin wrote Imperialism.  

As an earlier answer in this column has argued, since the end of the second world war, finance capital has become progressively separated from physical production.  

Financial institutions and industrial conglomerates both increasingly locate their activities and generate profits beyond — and operate independently of — their metropolitan heartlands.  

Capital moves internationally wherever it’s most profitable — where labour is cheapest and most pliant or where financial controls are weakest.  

At the same time, supranational financial institutions, though global in extent, also need the state — as a credit-worthy guarantor of “sound money” (the subject of another answer) without which they could not operate; to bail them out when things go wrong; and for their military muscle and political influence when compliance cannot be secured through “peaceful” means alone.  

The state is not, as so often presented, the “honest broker” of society. It’s there to ensure compliance. It is, ultimately, an organ of control.  

And paradoxically, as capital — particularly finance capital — becomes more and more global so individual nation states become ever more critical to its survival.  

As Walter Wriston, head of Citibank, put it following the crash of 2007-8, “countries can’t disappear — you always know where to find them in the event of difficulties.”  

Countries — “nations” — become the means by which the burden of crises can be transferred to — imposed upon — “the many.”  

And when economic and political coercion is insufficient, military force is a ready option.  

The United States has invaded or bombed 25 different countries since 1945 and including covert operations it has military deployments in twice this number.  

The biggest concentrations of troops are in Europe, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East (Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and Iraq).  

The US today maintains around 750 military bases in a total of 70 countries — 13 of them (with 24,000 military personnel) in Britain.  

Britain in turn has military bases in all its “British” overseas territories as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Germany, Brunei and Kenya — a total of 13 countries.  

Other shameful ongoing manifestations of our imperial rule include the strategically important US military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, to which the British government still refuses to allow the indigenous people (evicted in 1971) to return, hypocritically claiming that it is “protecting” a marine reserve — the world’s largest, declared in 2010 by the UK Cabinet and funded by corporate profits through a private foundation. 

Other capitalist states, too, have their empires. France has troops in its 10 remaining overseas territories (mainly in the Caribbean and Pacific) as well as military personnel in nine African states.  

The Black Lives Matter movement has emphasised how capital accumulation that fuelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the development of capitalism in the US and Europe was based on the enslavement particularly of African, Native American and South American peoples.

The felling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and of other symbols of oppression may have “improved” our metropolitan public landscapes and the ongoing controversy over Cecil Rhodes’s statue in Oxford has fuelled public awareness of Britain’s imperial past.  

But these were not just “evil” people. They were also manifestations of an evil, exploitative and corrupt system. 

And although the individuals memorialised are dead and some at least of their memorials are no longer disgracing Britain’s public places, the system they represent — imperialism — is alive and kicking. It permeates and poisons our lives.  

The Marx Memorial Library and Workers School promotes a wide range of lectures and classes, including an online Introduction to Marxism course starting on March 9.

Details of these together with previous Full Marx answers can be found on the library’s website


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