Imperialism: A short introduction


First published at Arguing for Socialism.

We live in a world where capitalism is near universal. However, it’s not just capitalism but capitalism in its imperialist stage. If we don’t understand what this is (and what it is not), we can’t understand anything about the politics of Australia and the world today.

According to the dictionary definition, the word “imperialism” can be applied to anything aimed at empire building: Thus, for instance, the Roman Empire was “imperialist”, England in the 1600s was “imperialist”. But for Marxists, imperialism has a precise meaning. It refers to a certain stage of capitalist development and that alone. Any other usage simply serves to obscure the real tendencies of development in the modern world.

Force & violence play a crucial role

It is important to understand that the modern capitalist system did not develop in the West simply by natural organic processes. Force, violence and plunder were at the very heart of it; they were — and remain — absolutely essential:

  • In Britain, force was used over several centuries to dispossess the peasantry of their land and to create a workforce available for exploitation. (This process is still going on in various parts of the world.)
  • The stupendous amounts of wealth extracted by the English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch from the Americas, Asia and Africa in the period 1500-1750 was absolutely decisive in accumulating the capital which enabled the industrial revolution to take off in Western Europe. Slave trading and slave labour constituted a massive part of this wealth.
  • The colonisation of the Americas was the greatest genocide in world history. A 2018 study argues that “the total number of Indigenous deaths throughout the Western Hemisphere between 1492 and 1900 appears to be about 175 million”! The indigenous population was slaughtered, worked to death in mines and plantations, and succumbed to starvation, introduced diseases and despair.
  • Today the West champions “free trade”. But in its infancy, British capitalism was nurtured by an extreme protectionist policy. Only when British industry was secure (about 1830) did it turn to promoting the virtues of “free trade”. It used brute force (“gunboat diplomacy”) to smash a path for its goods into India and China (the Opium Wars).
  • Today, the US — with its CIA, special forces, Marine Corps, airforce, carrier battle groups and some 800 bases around the world— is merely continuing this policy of “supplementing” and helping along “organic” economic processes with naked force.

Development of monopoly

In his famous 1915 work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin dates imperialism from 1900. This follows some fundamental changes that took place in Britain, the world’s most economically advanced country, in the last quarter of the 19th century.

  • In the early part of the 19th century, the laissez faire period of British capitalism (let things be, governments shouldn’t interfere with business), the economy consisted of a large number of small and medium-sized companies.
  • But laissez faire capitalism developed into monopoly capitalism. Each sector of production becomes dominated by a handful of firms — typically one, two or three. These firms get bigger and bigger and the monopolised sector employs the great mass of workers and accounts for most of the production.
  • Competition is not eliminated but takes place on a new basis; it is fiercer and more ruthless. Ernest Mandel in Marxist Economic Theory (Merlin Press: London, 1968) says: “There is no better way of describing the competition between monopolies than as a permanent state of war interrupted by frequent truces.” (p. 435) Think of the giant automobile companies.
  • Monopolies can set their own prices and force consumers to pay. Enormous profits are generated.
  • The economy becomes divided into monopoly and non-monopoly sectors, one with higher and the other with lower rates of profit. The non-monopoly sector is forced to cede to the monopoly sector a portion of the surplus value extracted from its workforce.
  • Monopoly capitalism is marked by decay and stagnation: We see crises, suppression of inventions, stupendous waste (advertising, etc.), massive overcapacity (capacity which can’t be profitably used). But this stagnation is relative, not absolute. As Mandel says, “it falls ever further short of the possibilities offered by modern technique” (p. 437).
  • The development of monopoly produces huge capital surpluses which cannot be profitably invested at home due to the saturation of the market. These surpluses are exported. Historically, this led to a new attitude to colonialism. It was now a question of protecting long-term loans and investments. Direct control assumed a much greater importance. Colonies also meant markets and sources of raw materials and denying these to rivals.
  • There was a huge spurt in colonialism in the last part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century. Just look at the carve-up of Africa (see map above).
  • After World War II, decolonisation was forced on Britain, France and the Netherlands but eventually — and often after big independence struggles — direct control was replaced by neo-colonialism wherein reliable client regimes protected imperialist interests.
  • Today, of course, the question of repayment of the infamous Third World debts to the Western states and banks is a key issue. Most of these loans never actually did anything positive for the country, for the people, but were siphoned off by corrupt regimes into Swiss bank accounts but the whole country must now pay for this theft. They should be cancelled.

World divided into two parts

Lenin explains that under imperialism the world is now divided into two qualitatively different parts:

  • A “First World” of the rich imperialist countries — North America, Western Europe and Japan.
  • A “Third World” of semicolonial countries which are dominated, dependent, capitalist countries completely subordinate to imperialism. These countries are “underdeveloped” due to the massive looting of the wealth of the Americas, Africa and Asia by Western Europe in the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution and then the brutal blocking and stunting of their development by imperialism.

Of course, there is a big spectrum here. The Third World stretches from highly developed and urbanised South Korea to impoverished Burkina Fasso. One can debate the exact status of countries in the grey area but all suffer from imperialist domination.

Role of the state

Compared to the infancy of the capitalist system, under imperialism the state has a massively enhanced role.

The first part of the 1800s, before imperialism, was the laissez faire period of capitalism, characterised as we’ve mentioned by many small and medium-sized capitals in each sector. As Mandel writes: “The bourgeoisie of the free competition period had the ‘Manchester’ outlook, strongly for free trade and against colonialism. All increase in public expenditure was regarded as waste by the industrial bourgeoisie, still greedy for new capital in order to be able to expand the framework of production.” (p. 451)

Under imperialism, the role of the state is massively enhanced. The monopolists want big state expenditures on arms, contracts, special concessions and tax breaks, bailouts, and control of the working class. The right-wing talk of “small government” only applies to social expenditures (health, public housing, etc.) which the monopolists resent. They actually want big government.

State still decisive instrument

The state is still the decisive instrument for imperialism; it is in no way rendered irrelevant by “globalisation”. Just look at the USA: It is constantly strengthening the state power and using it to assert its interests against its imperialist rivals, the Third World, Russia and China, the EU countries and, of course, the people.

Conversely, we should reject any idea that the national state can’t do anything to resist imperialist-pushed neo-liberalism. This claim flies in the face of the facts: anything is possible if the people are organised and mobilised under a radical leadership. Look at Cuba (more on that later). Even look at Venezuela where the revolution has stalled and faces massive internal problems. Since 2011 the state has built 4.5 million homes for the poor!

‘Multinational’ firms still national

We hear a lot of talk about transnational or multinational firms. It is true that their operations are indeed multinational and they have a global division of labour within the firm.

But each multinational is still profoundly national in ownership. Thus, for instance, US corporations backed by the US state fight it out in the world arena. There are only a tiny handful of truly multinational firms in respect of actual ownership (e.g., Shell which is controlled by British and Dutch capital).


There is a lot of talk about “globalisation”. As a July 2017 Guardian article put it:

Since the 1980s, and especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, lowering barriers to international trade had become the axiom of countries everywhere. Tariffs had to be slashed and regulations spiked. Trade unions, which kept wages high and made it harder to fire people, had to be crushed. Governments vied with each other to make their country more hospitable — more “competitive” — for businesses. That meant making labour cheaper and regulations looser …

“Globalisation” is globalisation of the neoliberal assault on working people, i.e., the extension to the entire world of austerity, cutbacks, and privatisation in the interests of boosting profits of giant First World corporations. Everything is fair game for their profit-making schemes: water and gas supply systems in the Third World, Britain’s National Health System, Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and so on. The grim effects of this assault on the world’s people is increasingly clear.

The COVID pandemic has also highlighted another huge problem with capitalist globalisation. Offshoring, that is, producing essential goods (especially medical products) in far away cheap labour countries, can lead to a crisis when a pandemic shuts down normal trade and supply chains.

The “casino economy” is often taken to mean that “finance capital” now dominates productive, industrial capital. This is not true. Finance capital has been dominant form for over a century. The massive speculation we see today results from the huge accumulation of surplus capital which cannot be profitably invested due to market saturation and chronic productive overcapacity.

Imperialism responsible for war

Imperialism is the cause of war in the modern world. There are wars of inter-imperialist competition for the division and redivision of the planet, wars by proxy, colonial and counter-revolutionary wars and so on.

  • The 1914-18 World War was the the first all-out inter-imperialist war. Estimates of the death toll range from 15-22 million. Millions more were maimed and crippled. The essence of the war was a struggle between robbers over loot: Britain and France had huge colonial empires while late-arriving Germany, the strongest European power, had few colonies. Britain and France strove to hang onto their colonial loot while Germany sought to grab it from them.

    In the event, the Allies were victorious but the US was the big winner and it was clear that a new world superpower had arrived.

  • World War II was in many ways a repeat of its predecessor. Germany (allied with Italy and Japan) again sought world supremacy. But this time the Soviet Union was allied to the British-French-US bloc and it was simply fighting for its survival. It played the biggest role in crushing Germany. The destruction was immense. Some 70-85 million people died.
  • Since World War II the US has been the sole superpower and Washington’s military preponderance has been absolute. As a consequence of this and because a nuclear war would be the end of everything, there have been no direct inter-imperialist wars. Until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there was a common front of the US-led “free world” against the Soviet Union and Third World liberation struggles.
  • The US debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that Washington’s attempt at its own “thousand-year Reich” (dubbed the “American century” by Time-Life publisher Henry Luce in the 1940s), i.e., their bid to control the entire world, is doomed to fail just as surely as did Hitler’s some 80 years ago.
  • Today, of course, the economic preponderance of the US is being eroded relative to China and its military supremacy is also being challenged. And the Ukraine war has introduced huge strains into the relationship between the US and its West European allies, especially Germany.

The eve of socialism?

Lenin regarded imperialism as the “eve of socialism”. I think that today this has to be reformulated in the light of the existential crisis of climate change: The imperialist era will either lead to the victory of socialism or the end of the human species — that is, we get rid of the capitalist system or it will doom us all.

There is no progressive role for capitalism whatsoever, in any sense. It is ever more malignant and destructive. We see this confirmed in so many ways every single day — there are crises everywhere we look.

On a world scale, all the objective economic conditions for socialism have existed since 1900. Our challenge is political: We have to mobilise the forces required to overthrow imperialism and embark on solving humanity’s desperate social and, above all, ecological problems by constructing a socialist society.

What about Australia?

Is Australia imperialist or is it a neo-colony of the United States? We have to say unequivocally that Australia is a small imperialist power in its own right. It dominates a number of Pacific countries, and it has its own giant monopolies (especially mining outfits) that operate around the world.

Yes, it is sometimes sickeningly subservient to Washington but we shouldn’t go overboard about this. The Australian bourgeoisie still controls the Australian state and it chooses to go with the US to defend their common interests. There have been many moments of tension in the past — over access to the US market for our farm produce and access by US firms to our PBS in the health sector. But these tensions play out against the backdrop of the acknowledged supremacy of the US.

And, of course, we see all the time the huge local monopoly outfits that dominate the economy (e.g., the supermarket chains), although often they will have a big foreign shareholding (not always obvious).

Can imperialism be overthrown?

Can imperialism actually be overthrown? A few points by way of conclusion:

Lenin stressed that imperialism reaches into labour movement in the imperialist countries; it uses its superprofits to create a relatively privileged stratum — the labour aristocracy. Due to its more secure conditions of employment and better wages and conditions, this layer is naturally susceptible to opportunist, pro-imperialist politics.

Socialists must engage in a constant fight against the opportunist politics of this layer and champion the interests of the non-privileged sections of the working class. Thus, in Australia racism, refugees and “border protection”, and justice for First Nations people are key issues. Solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles around the world must be a central part of socialist politics in Australia today.

Socialist Cuba remains a shining example of what can be done and how to do it. There the revolutionaries made a revolution in the “backyard” of the United States, took state power, mobilised the people, developed their country and have resisted a sustained US assault for over 60 years. Despite all the pressures and problems this has created, this remains an absolutely monumental achievement.

Two examples illustrate the scale of Cuba’s achievement:

  • In 2001 James Wolfenson, then head of the World Bank, was forced to admit that Cuba, which doesn’t belong to the IMF or the World Bank, had the best Third World social indices! (Wolfenson claimed that he wasn't embarrassed to admit this!) Of course, this was precisely because it stayed clear of the clutches of imperialism, unlike the rest of Latin America.
  • Based on 2015 figures, Cuba ranked first in the world on the Sustainable Development Index. The US was number 159 and Australia came in at number 160!

Whether in the Third World or the First, a people united, mobilised, and organised behind a revolutionary leadership is a colossal force. It alone can overthrow imperialism.