Imperialism, Marxist Theories of

views updated

Imperialism, Marxist Theories of

In the spring of 1845, a young German philosopher and journalist scribbled eleven epigrams on the back of a piece of paper. They were published some forty years later by the executor of his estate. The last of these pithy comments has become one of the world's best known one-liners: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it." With uncharacteristic clarity, Karl Marx (1818–1883) had set the agenda for thousands of his contemporaries and hundreds of millions of people in subsequent generations.

Changing the world is what Marxism is all about, and yet neither Karl Marx nor his life-long colleague and executor Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) ever developed a theory of imperialism. Instead, their theoretical work focused on explaining how capitalism's complex development creates the necessary preconditions for socialism. As young revolutionaries they were committed to the radical wing of a largely liberal-nationalist reform movement that would rise up to challenge the legitimacy of governments from London to Vienna in the spring and summer of 1848. In this context, Marx and Engels considered the most urgent question to be the struggle of the emerging working class against the industrial bourgeoisie. In contrast, imperialism, by then centuries old, appeared outmoded and in decline. After all, just in their short lifetimes, all the mainland Spanish colonies in America achieved independence, while the only new empire had resulted from the French conquest of Algeria.

In the wake of the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels emigrated to England, where from 1852 to 1863 they regularly wrote articles on world affairs for the New York Daily Tribune. These commentaries on current events cover a remarkably wide range of topics and include their only published work that directly relates to imperialism. These articles are critical syntheses of European press coverage of the major issues of the day, supplemented by their own background reading and research. The main imperial topics treated include Ireland, the renewal of the Honourable East India Company's charter in 1853, the "Eastern Question" as it degenerated into the Crimean War (1853–1856), the Anglo-Persian War of 1856, the Second Opium War (1856–1860), the Indian "Mutiny" of 1857 to 1858, and the Spanish invasion of Morocco (1858–1860).

At best, these articles offer occasional theoretical insights scattered amidst denunciations of "Oriental despotism" fueled by an abidingly Eurocentric humanist questioning: "Can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?" (Marx 1853/1979, vol. 12, p. 132). On the whole, the image conveyed is how the destructive creativity of capitalism forces needed change, but for the wrong reasons. The historical significance of this for their primary concern of revolutionary action in Europe was summarized in a letter that Engels sent Marx in October 1858: "the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat. In the case of a nation which exploits the entire world this is, of course, justified to some extent" (Engels 1958/1983, vol. 40, p. 344).

A century later, out of this eclectic body of journalism, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would compile collections on topical questions of theory: On Wars of Independence, On India, On Colonialism, On the Irish Question, and so on. These collections posit an ahistorical theoretical coherency that neither author would have recognized, and that the articles cannot support. When Marxist theories of imperialism did develop, it would not be through journalism, but by direct engagements in anti-imperialist struggles. Despite their serious flaws, the Daily Tribune articles remain historically interesting. Nuanced, contextualized, yet differing, critical analyses of them have been written by the historian V. G. Kiernan (1974) and the literary critic Aijaz Ahmad (1992).

The absence of a sustained theoretical engagement with imperialism by the cofounders of Marxism does not mean that their work offers little of interest. Indeed, some of the most important theoretical work on imperialism is in the Marxist tradition, precisely because it can build on concepts and processes first articulated by Marx and Engels. Four of their ideas have proven to be of particular relevance to subsequent theoretical debates on imperialism.

The first relevant idea is their recognition of the primacy of town-country relations: "the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis" (Marx 1867/1967, vol. 1, p. 352). The second relevant idea is also spatial. Marx argued that in the transition to capitalism, capital reaches out to reinforce or even introduce older forms of labor mobilization and discipline. From the seventeenth-century imposition of serfdom upon eastern European peasants, as the estates they worked became supply regions for western grain markets, to the rapid expansion of slave plantations in the American South producing cotton for the textile industry in Manchester, England, capitalist expansion was the enemy of freedom.

Third, Marx drew a distinction between merchant capital and industrial capital. Merchants accumulate capital by exploiting differences in the sale price that are temporal, usually seasonal, or spatial, usually between markets. Industrialists accumulate capital through the appropriation of surplus value—the value created by labor but not paid out in wages. So merchant capital is in the realm of circulation, while industrial capital is in production. As long as the commodity being bought or sold by the merchant is not an industrial product, and in the early history of capitalism it rarely was, merchant capital is engaged in what Marx called primitive accumulation.

The systematic transfer of wealth generated by the trades in precious metals, slaves, and opium were examples of primitive accumulation. Merchants are accumulating at the expense of noncapitalist societies. When, however, the merchant sells an industrial commodity, this fuels a systemic contradiction within capitalist society itself, because the merchant is appropriating some of the surplus value created in industry. In the nineteenth century, these tensions often took the form of industrial producers criticizing "unproductive" merchants and the banks they controlled.

The fourth relevant Marxist concept builds on the analytical primacy accorded to the capital goods sector within industrial society. For Marx, the simple application of machine tools to the production of consumer goods did not mean that a society had entered the era of modern industry. He defined a mature capitalist economy as one where machine tools were used to produce machines. Marx argued that in mature capitalism the capital goods sector appropriates from the consumer goods sector a substantial part of the value added in the manufacture of commodities. This transfer occurs through the high prices charged for capital goods. This systemic constraint leaves the consumer goods sector only two options: either cut costs or reduce competition and raise prices.

With the rapid growth of colonial empires following the Berlin Conference (1884–1885) that sanctioned a European division of Africa, imperialism became for many Marxists a question of colonial policy. Should socialists support colonial expansion as a necessary step in historical evolution? Generally, Marxists considered that social revolution in Europe was the necessary precondition for socialism elsewhere. This assumption followed logically from the revolutionary primacy Marxism accords to the industrial working class, but it also reflected contemporary racial and cultural prejudices. As Engels put it in 1894 when discussing whether the communal basis of Russian peasant agriculture might permit Russia to bypass capitalism:

Only when the capitalist economy has been relegated to the history books in its homeland and in the countries were it flourished, only when the backward countries see from this example "how it's done," how the productive forces of modern industry are placed in the service of all as social property—only then can they tackle this shortened process of development. (Engels 1894/1990, vol. 27, p. 426)

In this context, two divergent intellectual contributions stand out. The first is the struggle by the German social democratic leader Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) to convince his comrades that the rise of corporate concentration in the form of cartels and trusts, militarism, and the export of capital to colonial and semicolonial regions of the world, which was the hallmark of the new colonialism, were all the result of the low wages paid to European and American workers. In Socialism and Colonial Policy (1907), Kautsky argued that the limited market for consumer goods caused by these low wages meant that continued growth under capitalism required the imposition of monopolistic pricing policies, unproductive investments in a suicidal arms race, and new forms of superexploitation in the colonial world. Thus, opposing colonialism was an integral part of the struggle for socialism and against war.

The second highly original contribution was Accumulation of Capital (1913) by Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), who was born and educated in Polish Russia but was politically active in Germany. Luxemburg was caustically critical of the underconsumption theory used by Kautsky. She argued that the central problem lay elsewhere. The question that needed answering for her was why capitalist societies continue to grow despite the internal contradictions between sectors and types of capital. She concluded that Marx's analysis of capital was fundamentally flawed. The accumulation of capital and so the continued growth of the system rested on the continual subordination of new areas of the world to capitalist domination. Thus, capitalist growth requires intensified globalization. Militant internationalism was, therefore, the only correct revolutionary strategy, while the mass strike was its most effective tactic.

As influential as these theorists were, they were soon overshadowed by the publication of a slim volume by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin (1870–1924): Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism(1917). Although this work is a significant contribution to Marxism, there can be little doubt that its impact was as great as it was because its author would within the year lead the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Lenin's characterization of this new stage of capitalism incorporated numerous elements of earlier work. Key ideas had already been developed by Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938) in his Imperialism and World Economy, for which Lenin wrote an introduction in 1915. Lenin's Imperialism represented nonetheless a significant break with the treatment of imperialism as simply a question of colonial policy. Indeed, Lenin's theory of imperialism does not require there to be colonies at all. His theory deals primarily with changes in the socioeconomic structures of the leading capitalist powers.

For Lenin, imperialism had a number of characteristic features. Taking a term from a major analysis of Austrian banking published in 1910 by the social democrat Rudolf Hilferding (1877–1941), Lenin argued that imperialism meant the dominance of finance capital. Unlike Hilferding, for whom this meant banks controlling industry, Lenin argued that finance capital represented a synthesis of merchant and industrial capital. This was only possible, he argued, because of the rise of monopolies in industry, utilities, and transportation. These firms required not only privileged access to capital markets, but were large enough to create cartels to fix prices and divvy up the world economy amongst themselves. Consolidating control of the world meant that the export of capital, rather than the export of industrially produced commodities, increasingly characterized international trade.

These fundamental changes in the economic relations that had characterized capitalism in its competitive stage meant new social groups emerged. In the centers of finance capital, new bourgeois oligarchies developed that controlled the commanding heights of their respective economies, while an aristocracy of labor emerged within the working class that supported imperial policies. Lenin considered the social democratic leaders, like Kautsky, who supported their respective government's efforts in World War I (1914–1918), to have their social and political basis amongst this strata of the working class. This historic "betrayal" of proletarian class interests made them the particular target of Bolshevik attacks both during and after the war.

In colonial and semicolonial countries, Lenin argued that capital exports created a division within the bourgeoisie between those who were beholden to imperial interests and those who favored a more autonomous economic development and so were opposed to finance capital. This distinction between a comprador bourgeoisie and a national bourgeoisie, and the relationships that revolutionary forces should maintain with these differing factions, was at the heart of Marxist strategic debates in the 1920s.

At the Second Congress of the Third International (Communist International, or Comintern) in Moscow in July 1920, Lenin advanced the position that in colonial and semicolonial countries the revolutionary struggle had first to carry out a bourgeois democratic revolution before moving to social revolution. This position was challenged by Manabendra Nath Roy (1887–1954), founder of both the Mexican and Indian Communist parties. Roy defended a Luxemburgist antinationalist line, arguing that the toiling masses of workers and peasants were the only consequential revolutionary force in Asia and had no need to align themselves with bourgeois nationalist movements. Although his position was adopted as a supplementary thesis to Lenin's own position paper and Roy would occupy prominent positions in the Communist International until being purged in 1929, the main thrust of Comintern policy stressed the importance of a two-stage revolution and considered, in the counterrevolutionary climate of the 1920s, the struggle against British and French imperial interests to be primary. This was clearest in the debates over revolutionary strategy in China.

Under the leadership of the Kuomintang (KMT, also known as the Guomindong or Nationalist Party), a bourgeois nationalist alliance led first by Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Zhongshan, 1866–1925) and then Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975), a strong anti-imperialist mass movement had developed in southern China. The fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was directed by the Comintern to enter into a strategic alliance with the KMT. This subordination of the class struggle to anti-imperialism was facilitated by a theory of Li Dazhao (1888–1927), cofounder of the CCP and a historian and librarian at Beijing University, that imperialism had "proletarianized" China. The implication of this analysis, which strongly influenced Mao Zedong's (1893–1976) thinking, was that a multiclass alliance might seamlessly pass from a bourgeois democratic, anti-imperialist stage to one of social revolution. In April 1927 this alliance collapsed when the KMT massacred an estimated six thousand Communists in the streets of Shanghai.

Speaking to the First Latin American Communist Conference in June 1929, José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), the leading Peruvian revolutionary of his generation, observed: "The betrayal by the Chinese bourgeoisie and the failure of the Kuomintang have not yet been understood in their full magnitude. Their capitalist style of nationalism (one not related to social justice or theory) demonstrates how little we can trust the revolutionary nationalist sentiments of the bourgeoisie, even in countries like China" (Mariátegui 1929/1996).

Mariátegui went on to argue that this experience highlights the importance of concretely examining the history and politics of each specific country, so that what was an appropriate strategy in Central America, where patriotic feelings were shaped by the numerous American invasions, was not at all appropriate for a country like Argentina, with its large landholders and extensive bourgeoisie. In the case of Peru, specifically, and the Andean countries more generally, Mariátegui argued in his Seven Essays of Interpretation of Peruvian Reality (1928) that a revolutionary movement that does not recognize the rights of indigenous peoples is doomed to failure. Furthermore, he argued that communal institutions within indigenous societies offered a template for the development of socialism. There was no suggestion here of the need to wait for the Europeans to show "how it's done."

But old attitudes died hard. In 1936, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow, there was a chance encounter between Maurice Thorez (1900–1964), the leader of the French Communist Party, and Nguyen Ai Quoc, better known as Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the Vietnamese revolutionary. Thorez assured Ho that after the revolution in France, everything would be so much better in the Indo-Chinese colonies. Ho responded: "I hope you don't mind if we don't wait."

Long years in a fascist prison allowed Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), cofounder and early leader of the Italian Communist Party, to deepen his understanding of why one of the most militant workers' movements in Europe had failed to stop fascism. Gramsci argued that the most advanced form of capitalism was not finance capitalism, but Fordism, named after the type of mass production pioneered by American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (1863–1947). This phenomenon, then uniquely American, combined assembly lines and mass consumerism and was based on a cultural dominance that made modern, individualist, bourgeois values appear to be common sense. According to Gramsci, this universalizing and invasive Western cultural hegemony, with its related political economy, contrasted sharply with the nature of finance capital in France, where it rested on an alliance with small proprietors, and in Italy, where it relied on extensive parasitical classes "with no essential function in the world of production" (Gramsci 1971, p. 281).

This remarkable contribution to contemporary Marxism went largely unheeded at the time. Instead, at their 1936 Congress, the Comintern formally defined fascism as the "open dictatorship of finance capital." This effectively denied any qualitative difference between bourgeois democracies and fascist regimes, so when war broke out in September 1939 it was classified as an "imperialist" war. Only when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 did defense of the "socialist motherland" justify a Communist reengagement in the antifascist struggle.

Such was not the case, however, in China, where a more voluntarist form of Marxism was developing in the isolated Communist bastion of Yenan. In the 1930s and 1940s, Mao considered there to be "two big mountains lying like dead weight on the Chinese people: imperialism and feudalism" (Mao Zedong 1956, vol. 4, p. 317). They were to be removed through a national front that resisted the Japanese invasion, while simultaneously carrying out land reform. Thus, the social dimensions of this anti-imperialist struggle were not conceived as part of a struggle against capitalism, but rather as part of a necessary first stage that would build a people's democracy. Indeed, the CCP would not formally enter into the second stage, that of the building of socialism, until the Great Leap Forward in 1958.

Ironically, in the increasingly polarized world of the Cold War, it was this Chinese rearticulation of Lenin's two stages that provided the basis for a third way, when in April 1955, in the words of the American author Richard Wright (1908–1960), "the despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race" met in Bandung, Indonesia (Wright 1956, p. 12). Although the nonaligned movement would not formally be created until 1961, this early meeting of Asian and African leaders consecrated the idea of a "third world" where a national democratic struggle against imperialism and indigenous forces of reaction was the principal revolutionary task.

This rejection of the primacy of class struggle against the bourgeoisie had a direct impact on revolutionary movements in Asia's most populous countries. In India, where the world's first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala in 1957, it contributed to the extraordinarily divisive nature of Marxist politics. In Indonesia, which had the third largest Communist Party in the world, support for President Sukarno (1901–1970) ended brutally in April 1967 with the slaughter of an estimated one million Communists by the military led by General Suharto (b. 1921), operating in close cooperation with the American government.

Despite these failures, the extreme bitterness of the Sino-Soviet dispute led the CCP to equate the Soviet Union with the United States as a hegemonic superpower. In the foreign policy of the "three worlds," first articulated by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), who went on to become China's "paramount leader," anti-imperialism came to mean opposing any Soviet-supported movement in a third world country. The effects of this policy were disastrous, nowhere more so than in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, where it fuelled protracted civil wars that claimed the lives of millions.

Since the 1960s, Marxist theories of imperialism have developed primarily outside organized movements for social change. Academics, in particular historians, economists, and sociologists, have been prominent in this new theoretical work. This is a historically significant change, for as Marxist theories of imperialism have gained in precision, focus, and historical complexity, they have lost in political influence and indeed relevance. Three intellectual clusters will serve to illustrate the richness and diversity of this neo-Marxist literature: the development of underdevelopment and world-systems approaches; the Monthly Review; and the work on Unequal Exchange.

Influenced by Paul Baran's The Political Economy of Growth (1957), in the mid-1960s André Gunder Frank (1929–2005) pioneered the concept of the development of underdevelopment to critique prevailing economic aid policies to Latin America. Those policies distinguished between developed and undeveloped economies and largely argued that by following the development path taken by wealthy countries the undeveloped could catch up. Frank said there are no undeveloped economies, there are only developed and underdeveloped ones. Both are intimately related through century-old processes whereby the developed economies expanded by actively underdeveloping the rest of the world. His analysis stressed the importance of trade and challenged the legitimacy of a specifically national focus to deal with what he argued was clearly an international process of global restructuring. Walter Rodney (1942–1980) significantly expanded the analysis with his 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

This much more historical understanding of imperialism was consistent with the theoretical framework of the longue durée (long duration) developed by Fernand Braudel (1902–1985), editor of the most influential European history journal, Les Annales (The Annals). Braudel stressed the significance of the very long geographic time and the multiple generations of social time over the fleeting moments of individuals' lives or events. Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930), a historical sociologist, in his three-volume Modern World-System (1974–1988) developed Braudel's concepts and adapted the Marxist distinction between town and country, to his explanation of how differing, internally coherent, parts of the world interacted. He argued between 1500 and 1800 a spatial hierarchy of core economies emerged that controlled resource-producing peripheral areas.

Since the 1970s, there has been a sustained and active debate within the social sciences and humanities of advanced capitalist academe on the merits of this world-systems approach. Suffice it to say here that most participants in this debate do not draw any clear distinction between capitalism and imperialism, which they think of as largely coterminous, while only a minority would consider their work a contribution to Marxism.

Such is certainly not the case for the group of scholars and activists associated with Monthly Review. Since its founding by the noted economist Paul Sweezy (1910–2004) and popular historian Leo Huberman (1903–1968) in 1949, the Monthly Review collective has set itself the task of analyzing in accessible prose anti-imperialist struggles around the world. For as Sweezy and Baran explained in their Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (1966), which was dedicated to the Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara (1928–1967), the primary struggle has shifted from the class struggle within advanced capitalism to the third world's struggle against imperialism.

This third worldism soon became the most widely shared position among nonaligned Marxists in the advanced capitalist world. In their analysis of imperialism, Sweezy and his colleagues stressed the significance of transnational corporations. Their analysis of the systemic need for unproductive military investments and planned obsolescence in consumer goods, although evocative of older theories of underconsumption, has permitted the development of an innovative and articulate environmental critique.

The failure of so many newly independent countries to redress the economic disparities with their former colonial powers led in the 1960s and 1970s to a profound critical reassessment of the nature of international trade and the difference between growth and development. Central to this work was Arghiri Emmanuel's (1911–2001) study of the imperialism of trade, L'échange inégal (Unequal Exchange, 1969), which showed how contemporary capitalism inverts the assumptions underlying David Ricardo's (1772–1823) law of comparative advantage. As a result, increased trade simultaneously creates poverty and generates wealth, but in differing parts of the world.

The African economist Samir Amin (b. 1931) has structurally analyzed this unequal development (Le développement inégal, 1973) of peripheral societies. According to Amin, subsequent globalization has done nothing to reduce this core-peripheral divide. Indeed, it has permitted its consolidation, through the emergence of monopolies over technology, military hardware, communications and culture, finance, and institutions of international governance. These monopolies systemically favor advanced capitalist countries.

Since 1999, the ecological and human cost of neoliberal globalization has given rise to an opposition movement around the world. This challenge to a particularly virulent form of imperialism is the first in more than a century not to draw explicitly on the Marxist tradition. This disjuncture speaks eloquently to the ethical and political failure of Marxist attempts to build socialist societies in the twentieth century. One can well understand why a new generation who believes a better world is possible would want to distance themselves from such a tragic legacy. Yet to achieve a better world requires a critical understanding of how power relationships work in this world and so this new struggle will require many of the analytical tools first developed as Marxist theories of imperialism.

see also Imperialism, Liberal Theories of; Modern World-System Analysis.


Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, and Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.

Amin, Samir. Le développement inégal: Essai sur les formations sociales du captialisme périphérique. Paris: Éditions de minuit, 1973. Translated by Brian Pearce as Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976.

Bukharin, Nicolai. Imperialism and World Economy (1915). New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Emmanuel, Arghiri. L'échange inégal: Essai sur les antagonismes dans les rapports économiques internationaux. Paris: François Maspero, 1969. Translated by Brian Pearce as Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Engels, Friedrich. "Afterward" (1894) to "On Social Relations in Russia." In Marx-Engels: Collected Works (1970–1992), vol. 27. New York: International Publishers, 1990. Available from

Engels, Friedrich. "Letter: Engels to Marx in London." October 7, 1958. In Marx-Engels: Collected Works (1970–1992), vol. 40. New York: International Publishers, 1983. Available from

Gramsci, Antonio. "Americanism and Fordism." In Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1926–1935), edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, 277-318. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Kiernan, V. G. Marxism and Imperialism: Studies. London: Edward Arnold, 1974.

Lenin, V. I. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917). Moscow: Foreign Language Press, 1952.

Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital (1913). Translated by Agnes Schwarzchild. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968.

Mao Zedong. "How Yu Kung Removed the Mountains." (1945) In Selected Works, vol. 4, 316-319. New York: International Publishers, 1956.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. "Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint." Presented to the First Latin American Communist Conference, June 1929. Translated by Michael Pearlman, 1996. Available from

Marx, Karl. Capital, A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Capitalist Production (1867). Translated from the Third German Edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Edited by Frederick Engels. New York: International Publishers, 1967.

Marx, Karl. "The British Rule in India" (1853). In Marx-Engels: Collected Works (1970–1992), vol. 12. New York: International Publishers, 1979. Available from

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Marx-Engels: Collected Works (1835–1895). 45 vols. New York: International Publishers, 1970–1992. Available from Internet Archives. Available from

Sweezy, Paul, and Paul Baran. Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966.

Wright, Richard. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1956.