Anti-Imperialism then & now: On the principles of anti-imperialism in view of changes in world capitalism

US soldiers in Iraq

It is an axiom for Marxists that imperialist powers, their rivalry, and their wars are one of the key characteristics of the final stage of capitalism, which has been consequently called “the epoch of imperialism”. It is therefore only coherent that the struggle against imperialist aggression and wars has always been an elementary feature of the revolutionary program in modern times.

While this has been true since the onset of the imperialist epoch at the beginning of the 20th century, it would be mistaken to imagine that the concrete application of these principles and the relevance of its individual elements remain always one and the same. In fact, the concrete application of this program depends on the specific characteristics of a given historic period within this epoch.

In this essay we shall, after a brief summary of the principles of anti-imperialism, elaborate how these principles were applied in different periods in the past and, most importantly, how they need to be applied today. Finally, we will discuss the underlying changes in modern capitalism that influence the concrete application of the anti-imperialist program and the consequences of these changes for Marxist strategy. 

Principles of anti-imperialism

Here, we will limit ourselves to briefly summarise the principles of anti-imperialism, since we have elaborated on this in detail in two books and other works.1 Since imperialism is a central feature of modern capitalism, the struggle against it is an elementary feature of working-class policy. In other words, it is the application of the Marxist program and the general methods of the class struggle to the terrain of anti-chauvinist and anti-militarist struggle.

The Marxist program against imperialism is based on the axiom that the working class is by its very nature an international class. As such, its interests are in sharpest contrast to those of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Just as the workers of a given enterprise have no common interests with their boss, so the working class has no common interests with the ruling class of a given imperialist state. Quite the opposite: just as workers want to weaken, defeat and expropriate the owners of “their” corporation, so too do workers of a given imperialist country desire to weaken, defeat and overthrow their ruling class. At the same time, workers in one enterprise share common interests with their colleagues in other companies, which is why they jointly organise in trade unions. The same is the case with workers in one country, as they fundamentally share the same class interests as their colleagues abroad.

Marxists recognise that imperialist capitalism is characterised by the global domination of a handful of Great Powers as well as a number of monopolies. Such a system contains irreconcilable contradictions that necessarily provoke crises, tensions and wars. We therefore refute the pacifist illusion that capitalism could somehow overcome such antagonisms and establish a peaceful capitalist world order a concept first elaborated by Karl Kautsky and later adopted by social democrats and Stalinists. The only way to abolish death and destruction at the hand of poisonous militarism is to smash the Great Powers, overthrow the ruling capitalist and establish a world federation of workers and peasant republics via the socialist world revolution.

For these reasons, workers in imperialist countries utilise every conflict in which their class enemy is involved to advance their interests and strengthen their fighting power. Historically, this program has been associated with the formula of revolutionary defeatism2 which the Left Opposition, led by Leon Trotsky, once defined as follows: “What is meant by the term defeatism? In the whole past history of the party, defeatism was understood to mean desiring the defeat of one’s own government in a war with an external enemy and contributing to such a defeat by methods of internal revolutionary struggle.”3

In the epoch of imperialism, Marxists differentiate between three categories of states: imperialist, (semi-)colonial and (degenerated) workers states. Without understanding the existence of these three fundamental types of class states, it is impossible for socialists to find a correct orientation in the imperialist epoch: “To teach the workers correctly to understand the class character of the state imperialist, colonial, workers’ — and the reciprocal relations between them, as well as the inner contradictions in each of them, enables the workers to draw correct practical conclusions in situation.”4

Corresponding to such different categories of states, Marxists basically differentiate between two types of wars: wars of oppression and wars of liberation. Wars of oppression are conflicts between two reactionary camps in which the working class does not support either side. Examples for such are conflicts between imperialist states or reactionary civil wars. Wars of liberation can be the struggle of a (semi-)colonial country against an imperialist power; of a nationally oppressed people against the dominating nation; of a progressive camp in a civil war; or of a (degenerated) workers state. In such conflicts, socialists unambiguously support the anti-imperialist or anti-reactionary camp:

Capitalist brigands always conduct a 'defensive' war, even when Japan is marching against Shanghai and France against Syria or Morocco. The revolutionary proletariat distinguishes only between wars of oppression and wars of liberation. The character of a war is defined, not by diplomatic falsifications, but by the class which conducts the war and the objective aims it pursues in that war. The wars of the imperialist states, apart from the pretexts and political rhetoric, are of an oppressive character, reactionary and inimical to the people. Only the wars of the proletariat and of the oppressed nations can be characterized as wars of liberation.5 

Different types of wars require different strategies. In conflicts between imperialist states (as well as in conflicts between equally reactionary camps), the principles of international working-class solidarity require socialists to oppose both camps. They must refuse to side with their own ruling class as well as with that of the opposing imperialist camp. Likewise, socialists totally reject any chauvinist propaganda of the ruling class. Instead of supporting their “own” ruling class, they propagate intransigent class struggle (following the famous phrase of Karl Liebknecht in World War I “The main enemy is at home”). This strategy implies in the case of war, as formulated by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in 1914, that revolutionaries strive for the “transformation of the imperialist war into civil war”; that is, advance the proletariats’ struggle for power under the conditions of war. Such a program is the only way to unite the international working class on an internationalist basis and break any “patriotic” unity of workers with “their” imperialist bourgeoisie as well as their lackeys inside the workers movement.

In conflicts between the imperialist bourgeoisie and oppressed peoples, Marxists call on workers and popular organisations around the world to act decisively in the spirit of revolutionary anti-imperialism and working class internationalism. They must unconditionally support the oppressed people against the imperialist aggressors and fight for the defeat of the latter. They need to apply the anti-imperialist united front tactic this means siding with the forces representing these oppressed people, without giving political support to their respective leaderships (usually petty bourgeois nationalists or Islamists; sometimes even semi-colonial bourgeois states). Socialists in imperialist countries are obligated to fight merciless against the social-chauvinist supporters of Great Power privileges as well as the cowardly centrists who abstain from actively supporting the struggle of the oppressed. Socialists support the Anti-Imperialist Patriotism of the oppressed and help them to develop a socialist, internationalist consciousness. Only on the basis of such a program is it possible for socialists to create the conditions for trust and unity of the workers and poor peasants of the oppressed people with progressive workers in the imperialist countries. Only on such a fundament is it possible to unite the international working class on an internationalist basis. Only with such a strategy is it possible for communists to replace the vacillating petty-bourgeois leaderships of the oppressed masses.6 

The relevance of different aspects of the anti-imperialist program in different historic periods

While the above-mentioned principles of anti-imperialism are always relevant in the epoch we are living in, their concrete application depends on the concrete form of the capitalist world order and its inner contradictions. Let us give a brief overview.

In the first period of the imperialism epoch before 1914, tensions between imperialist powers (mainly Britain, France, Germany, Russia, US and Japan) were the dominating feature of the world situation. As is well known, these tensions resulted in the devastating World War I between 1914-18. While the large majority of the Second International capitulated and failed to fight consistently against all imperialist powers, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin organised an internationalist minority which became the nucleus of the Communist International founded in March 1919 on the basis of the program of revolutionary defeatism.

Another feature of the pre-1914 period, albeit less pronounced as it would become later, were colonial wars of the imperialist powers mainly but not exclusively by Britain and France against the popular uprisings of people of the South. As examples we refer to the anti-British insurrections by the Dervish Movement in Somalia and the Mahdist rebels in Sudan in late 19th century; the uprising of the Herero and the Namaqua against the German rulers in 1904-07; and the so-called Boxer Rebellion in China in 1899-1901.

In the period 1914-45, all types of conflicts took a particularly sharp expression. This period saw two world wars the first being a conflict between imperialist powers while the second was a combination of inter-imperialist conflicts (US, Britain and France against Germany, Italy and Japan), a conflict between an imperialist power and a degenerated workers state (Germany against the Soviet Union), and national liberation wars (for example, China against Japan and the partisan wars in German-occupied Europe). In addition, there were also a number of other national liberation wars (the Rif War led by Abd el-Krim against Spain and France in 1921-26, the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925, Japan against China from 1931, Italy against Ethiopia in 1935-36) as well as civil wars (Spain 1936-39) in this period.

In all these conflicts, revolutionaries first the Bolsheviks and the Communist International, and later its successor, Trotsky’s Fourth International took a defeatist position in inter-imperialist conflicts against both camps but supported the oppressed nations, the Soviet Union and anti-fascist Spain in their wars of liberation.

The period after World War II more precisely, from the onset of the Cold War in 1947/48 until the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91 bore several different features compared with the previous period. While inter-imperialist rivalry did not disappear, it became a secondary feature. The reasons for this were, on one hand, the Cold War between the imperialist powers and the Stalinist states (most importantly the USSR) that pushed the former to join forces; on the other, because WWII had resulted in the clear and undisputed absolute hegemony of US imperialism within the capitalist camp. In addition, this period also saw a number of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles that resulted in some important defeats for the Western powers (Vietnam War, Algeria).

The period between 1991 and 2008 the year of the Great Recession was characterised by the disappearance of Stalinist workers states and the absolute hegemony of US imperialism. Other imperialist powers Western Europe, Japan and reemerging Russia under Putin were too weak to effectively challenge Washington. However, this period in particular in its late phase saw the beginning of the decline of the US hegemony. The most important wars in this period were national liberation struggles, such as those of the Iraqi and Afghan people against the US and its allies as well as of the Chechen people against Russia. Other important wars were those in the Balkans in the 1990s. In all these wars, Marxists supported the wars of liberation against imperialist and reactionary aggressors.

The current historic period, which started in 2008, is characterised by the decay of capitalism reflected in economic stagnation, humanitarian and ecological catastrophes, wars and revolutionary crises. In such a period we see basically two types of conflicts: on one hand, there has been a massive acceleration of inter-imperialist rivalry, mainly as a result of the rise of China and Russia as imperialist powers challenging the old Western imperialists; on the other hand, national liberation wars (for example in Afghanistan until 20217, the Ukraine’s war of national defence since February 20228 or the current Gaza War against Israel’s genocide9) or progressive civil wars (in Syria against the Assad tyranny since 2011,10 in Burma/Myanmar since the military coup in 202111) are crucial features of the world situation.12

Important changes in the social-economic physiognomy of imperialist capitalism

There have been several important changes in the social-economic physiognomy of imperialist capitalism in the last hundred years that Marxists have to take into account to understand the character of the current period and the corresponding tasks for the class struggle. Since we have already analysed these developments in much detail we limit ourselves to a brief summary and references to our studies.

First, there has been a dramatic shift of capitalist value production and, correspondingly, of the international working class. At the time of Lenin and Trotsky, the (semi-)colonial countries in the South were still capitalistically backward and industrial production was mostly located in imperialist countries in North America, Western Europe and, to a lesser degree, in Japan. Correspondingly, most of the international working class lived in these imperialist states. However, this has massively changed in the past decades. In 1950 34% of the global industrial workers lived in the South; in 1980 this share has risen to about 50%; and in 2013, 83.5% of all industrial workers lived in semi-colonial countries and emerging imperialist China. In total, about three-quarters of global wage labourers live outside of the Western imperialist countries.13 

Correspondingly, the majority of capitalist value production no longer takes place in Western imperialist countries, as the ruling class painfully noticed with all the disruptions of global supply chains in the past years. While the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain and Italy accounted for about 55% of world’s manufacturing in 1985, this share had declined to less than 30% by 2018.14 (See Table 1)

Table 1. Regional Shares of Global Industrial Value Added in 201915 


Region                                                                         Share

China                                                                          24.9%

United States                                                             16.6%

Northeast Asia                                                          8.8%

Japan                                                                         6.4%

South Korea                                                               2.4%

Western Europe                                                        8.7%

Southeast Asia (ASEAN)                                         4.8%

Oceania                                                                      1.6%


This changes basically reflect two processes. On one hand, China has emerged as a new imperialist power which is challenging the long-term hegemony of the US.16 This is manifested in the fact that China has become the leading country together with the US in the global ranking of the largest corporations in the world (as calculated by the Fortune Global 500 list in Table 2). We see the same picture when it comes to the global ranking of billionaires. (See Table 3) And while China is still behind the US in military expenditures, it has already become the world’s No. 2 (U.S. 916 vs. China 296 billion U.S. Dollar).17

Table 2. Top 10 Countries with the Ranking of Fortune Global 500 Companies (2023)18 


Rank                   Country                                       Companies                      Share(in%)


1                          United States                         136                                    27.2%

2                          China (without Taiwan)         135                                    27.0%

3                          Japan                                      41                                      8.2%

4                          Germany                                30                                      6.0%

5                          France                                    23                                      4.6%

6                          South Korea                           18                                      3.6%

7                          United Kingdom                     15                                      3.0%

8                          Canada                                   14                                      2.8%

9                          Switzerland                            11                                      2.2%

10                        Netherlands                            10                                      2.0%


Table 3. China and U.S. Lead the Hurun Global Rich List 202119


                            2021                    Share of “Known” Global Billionaires 2021


China                  1058                    32.8%


U.S.                     696                      21.6%


On the other hand, this process reflects the increasing dependence of imperialist powers on industrial production in the Global South. Hence, the super-exploitation and control of semi-colonial countries becomes increasingly important for Great Powers. This is even more the case than official figures suggest (usually calculated in US dollars) because these distort the picture as through various mechanism unequal exchange, currency manipulation, internal calculations within multinational corporations, etc. the value produced in imperialist countries is overestimated while the share produced in semi-colonial countries is underestimated.20 

Another important difference between the period in which Lenin and Trotsky were living in and the period after WWII is the transformation of most colonies into semi-colonies; that is, countries which are formally political independent but continue to have a dependent and super-exploited position in the imperialist world order.

Furthermore, there has been a massive process of globalisation in terms of the global integration of production and trade. Between the end of WWII and the Great Recession in 2008, the ratio of goods trade to global output (Gross Domestic Product) had constantly increased from about 10% to nearly 50%. Since then, this share has slightly decreased but still vacillates between 41% and 48%.21 

However, with the acceleration of inter-imperialist rivalry, trade between the Western and Eastern Great Powers is decreasing while it increases within the respective blocs. A recently published study of leading economists of the IMF writes: 

We find that, like during the Cold War, trade and investment between blocs is decreasing, compared to trade and investment within blocs. While the decoupling remains small compared to that earlier episode, it is also in its early stages and could worsen significantly if geopolitial tensions persists and restrictive trade policies continue to mount.22 

We already predict this development more than a decade ago when we noted: 

As a result there will be a tendency towards forms of protectionism and regionalisation. Each Great Power will try to form a regional bloc around it and restrict access for the other Powers. By definition, this must result in numerous conflicts and eventual wars.23 

Finally, another important change in the period since WWII has been the expansion and consolidation of the labour aristocracy in the imperialist countries. As Lenin explained, this is the top layer of the working class (certain sectors of highly-paid skilled workers) which has been bribed by the bourgeoisie with various privileges. The financial sources to pay off the labor aristocracy in the imperialist countries, and thereby to undermine its working-class solidarity, are derived from the extra profits which the monopoly capitalists obtain by super-exploiting the semi-colonial countries as well as migrants in the imperialist metropolises. Unfortunately, the labour aristocracy along with its twin, the labor bureaucracy plays a dominating role inside the trade unions and the reformist parties in the imperialist countries. On an ideological level, these layers play an important role in transmitting aristocratic prejudices (Islamophobia, chauvinism, support for Zionism, etc) to wider layers of the popular masses directed against oppressed people and the lower strata of the proletariat, such as migrants. We call this phenomenon aristocratism.24 

Consequences for Marxists

In this final chapter, we shall summarise some consequences of these changes for Marxist strategy.

1) Revolutionary anti-imperialism is of crucial importance in the current period since both inter-imperialist rivalry as well as imperialist aggression and national liberation struggles are key features of the world situation. It is impossible to be a communist without a consistent position of revolutionary defeatism against all Great Powers and without unconditional support for the struggles of the oppressed peoples.

2) Internationalism in theory and practice is essential for Marxists because the world economy is more integrated than ever and because major challenges of humanity from the climate crisis to armament and migration are by their very nature global issues. Advocating cross-border class struggles and the international organisation of the working class are therefore imperative to fight catastrophic capitalism. Most importantly, Marxists have to advance the unification of the proletarian vanguard and build a revolutionary world party.

3) Those building the international workers movement and a new revolutionary world party must not be content with working in the old imperialist countries in Western Europe and North America. We must rather have a focus on the semi-colonial countries and new powers, such as China, since it is these regions where the vast majority of the global proletariat is located.

4) Revolutionary work in the old imperialist countries in Western Europe and North America must have a focus on the masses of the working class in contrast to the privileged and aristocratic layers at the top or the academic middle class milieu. This includes in particular migrants who face a double oppression (as workers and as a national minority) and who are also transmitting belts to the countries of the Global South. Revolutionaries need to work within the labour movement for unity of native and migrant workers and advocate an anti-imperialist program of solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed.

5) Such an orientation goes hand-in-hand with the conscious struggle of revolutionaries against aristocratic prejudices within the workers movement and the so-called left. Such a struggle must not be waged only on a theoretical-propagandistic level but also, and more importantly, by advocating concrete practical solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles in the south and anti-chauvinist resistance in the imperialist countries.

These are some conclusions which we can draw from comparing the conditions of anti-imperialist struggles in past and present. We look forward to exchanging views with other socialist organisations and activists on this issue and joining forces in the common struggle to bring down the imperialist monster.

Michael Pröbsting is a socialist activist and writer. He is the editor of the website where a version of this article first appeared.