Understanding imperialism: a reply to Sam King

by Patrick Weiniger • Published 12 January 2015

The classical Marxist theories of imperialism – of which Lenin’s is the most well known – were developed in a specific and very important context; that of World War I. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of that event. The world had seen nothing like it in terms of the industrial-scale carnage which repeatedly saw tens of thousands of people killed in single days of particular battles, nor in the use of poison gases, nor the horrors of trench warfare.

The political impact was possibly as monumental as the humanitarian one. The victory of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the world’s first workers’ government occurred precisely in the context of this war. Other revolutions that resulted from the turmoil of the war included the overthrow of the Kaiser in Germany.

The war resulted in the international socialist movement becoming irrevocably split. The Second International of socialist parties had failed in its mission to unite the workers of the world when its various national sections joined the war efforts of their respective ruling classes. In response Lenin’s Russian Bolsheviks succeeded in establishing a Third International: a grouping of revolutionary parties dedicated to opposing imperialist war and replicating the success of the Bolshevik revolution in their own countries.

The question of war was the key issue of the day. All of the theoretical treatises on imperialism by Lenin, Bukharin, Luxemburg and their contemporaries attempted to explain the causes and meaning of the war. Moreover they were about political outlook. The key question was whether capitalism (assuming it was to survive) was destined to inflict further wars on humanity, or whether some realignment of the capitalist system could enable further wars to be averted. This was one of the major concrete ways that the question of reform or revolution was being posed in this era.

On this question Lenin was adamant. Capitalism had reached a stage of development which he termed imperialism, in which predatory wars between the great powers were inevitable. These powers would keep fighting to redivide the world. The political conviction on which this theory rests was that the working classes must “transform the imperialist war into a civil war”. The curse of mass slaughter could only be ended by the working class taking power and introducing socialism.

Anyone familiar with Lenin’s writings on imperialism would know that they had a particular polemical target: Karl Kautsky. Lenin had previously revered Kautsky as the foremost theorist of orthodox Marxism. Lenin now endlessly decried Kautsky as a renegade for failing publically to oppose the war.[1] Lenin considered this to be a crucial duty of all socialists in the belligerent countries.

Lenin sought to dismantle Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism”. This theory held that wars like the “great war” only benefitted a minority of the capitalist class (ship builders, arms manufacturers, etc.), and that war was disadvantageous both to the popular masses and to the majority of capitalists whose international trade was disrupted. Therefore it would be possible for the capitalists of different countries to unite in a lasting agreement to exploit the workers of the world without sending them to war. Lenin rejected this theory as “reactionary and utopian” for trying to con workers into believing in the possibility of a peaceful capitalism. In doing so he rejected the class collaborationist orientation that underpinned such a world view, whereby the workers’ movement would ally itself with the supposedly “peaceful” sectors of capital. Lenin instead sought to direct popular anger about the war towards the overthrow of the capitalist class.

I am sure many people find it amusing that Marxist writers so frequently demand that their own views on topics are identical in essence to those of great revolutionary leaders; and especially those of Lenin. Sam King’s article in Marxist Left Review 8 presents itself as a faithful retelling and application of Lenin’s theory.[2] This article, in part, will seek to demonstrate why this is not the case. A major reason why I think Sam fails in this regard is that he appears to be writing for a different purpose than that of Lenin. Sam’s theory involves deciding which powerful states are and are not imperialist. Lenin had no such purpose. He never tried to distinguish between powerful states in this way.

Lenin developed a theory of imperialism that included a range of economic components, including the domination of finance capital, the importance of the export of capital and – Sam’s concept of choice – monopoly. These were dynamics of the system that Lenin considered to be indicative of capitalism in its imperialism phase. However, Lenin never demanded that any particular country’s economy must conform to this list before its military and geopolitical actions could be classified as imperialist. As Louis Proyect has put it:

Lenin’s 1914 pamphlet is a guide to understanding a system, not a handbook on classifying countries. For much of the past ten years or so, I have seen arguments…on how to classify apartheid South Africa (or even post-apartheid) or Israel. Are they imperialist? Sub-imperialist? Lenin never intended to provide some kind of birdwatcher’s guide for such classifications, however. Lenin’s pamphlet was written for a specific time and place, not a universally applicable textbook.[3]

Sam’s focus appears to be challenging the understanding of many currents on the left, and others in society, that China is an emerging imperialist power. Sam takes particular aim at the International Socialist Tendency (IST), although they are far from alone in this analysis. The key contention of Sam’s article is that China cannot be considered imperialist according to Lenin’s thesis because China is not the home of multinational corporations (MNCs) which are monopolistic. More specifically, he argues that although some of the largest corporations in the world are Chinese, these companies generally do not possess important technology patents. Therefore Chinese companies are not able to extract “super-profits” by exploiting the labour of (other) low-wage economies by outsourcing bulk production, or by extracting technology rents.

Sam’s article contains insightful and useful explanations of how MNCs based in high-wage economies can continually become richer even though manufacturing has declined – often massively – in their home countries. But this does not mean that China is not imperialist according to Lenin’s theory or in general.

Of course the international division of labour described by Sam was not central to Lenin’s theory because it did not exist then. In order to develop an interpretation of Lenin’s theory by which today’s China could not be considered imperialist, Sam tries to develop two dichotomies: one between the economic and the politico-military dimensions of imperialism, and the other between imperialism as a competition between powerful states or as something done to third world countries. I consider that Lenin’s theory involves all of these propositions, and that they are integrated rather than dichotomous. For Sam however, imperialism is primarily an economic process in which poor countries are exploited by rich countries, and that war and competition between different powers are not central and should not be emphasised. To quote Sam:

Lenin’s theory of imperialism revolves primarily around the systematic exploitation of the poor economies by monopoly capital based principally in the rich economies. Within Lenin’s framework, inter-imperialist wars are secondary to exploitation of the poor economies, as these wars are ultimately about redrawing the terms and conditions of that exploitation.[4]

Throughout his essay Sam takes Lenin’s terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” and substitutes for them the concepts of first and third world countries. This is not a meaningless terminological “update”, as it conveys meanings that were not part of Lenin’s definition. For instance Russia was an oppressor in Poland, a fact that Lenin regularly emphasised, but Poland was on the whole more industrially advanced than Russia. More crucially, there is nothing in Lenin to suggest that a nation must have a high per capita GDP or a high standard of living for its population in order to be imperialist, to be an oppressor; “backward” Russia in the early twentieth century will again suffice as an example.

As per the quote above, Sam treats imperialism as an economic relationship in which military and political power are merely a pale reflection. This will not do. For Marxists including Lenin, imperialism was a process with an economic basis, and can be considered as having an economic dimension. That is to say, Marxists recognise that imperialism did not emerge as a series of battles between states without regard to any economic processes, and it is not conducted without regard to economic exploitation. But imperialism is also really about what it says it’s about: empires.

That is, it involves powerful states and their military forces, as well as their corporations. This should all be pretty obvious, not just because the term itself connotes it, but because of the context for the development of the theory, which I discussed at the start of this article. The debates over imperialism in Lenin’s time were fundamentally about the battles between the great powers. They were about war: explaining the present one and what to do to stop the next one. Thus it makes little sense for Sam to accuse other Leninists of misinterpreting Lenin because of “an overemphasis on inter-imperialist competition…and the clashes between great powers”. After all, it would have been difficult to overemphasise such things in 1916 when world events were emphasising them so stridently. If Lenin had not given much importance to “inter-imperialist competition…and the clashes between great powers” then his work would have lacked relevance in its own time, let alone ours.

Much of the content of Lenin’s pamphlet focuses on economic questions, but not because Lenin viewed the economic dimensions of imperialism as more important than the political or military ones. The fact that it does not pay more attention to the latter questions was something for which Lenin was apologetic, as it was a product of the legal situation in which he was writing. As Lenin explains in his April 1917 preface:

This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language – in that accursed Aesopian language – to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a “legal” work.[5]

When Lenin wrote a preface for Bukharin’s work Imperialism and World Economy (which Lenin viewed favourably, unlike Sam), he wrote:

Every one interested in not only the economics but in any sphere of present-day social life must acquaint himself with the facts relating to this problem [i.e. imperialism], as presented by the author [Bukharin] in such detail on the basis of the latest available data. Needless to say that there can be no concrete historical analysis of the present war, if that analysis does not have for its basis a full understanding of the nature of imperialism, both from its economic and political aspects… Without such an understanding it is impossible to speak of forming a correct view on the war.[6]

Here I think we get a real picture of the balance that Lenin places between the economic and the politico-military dimensions of imperialism. Imperialism involves an economic dimension without which we cannot understand the political dimension, which in turn makes it impossible to understand the war. It is not that one is of real consequence and the other not, but that they cannot be understood in isolation.

As for whether imperialism is the exploitation of the weak by the strong nations or whether it is about competition between the strong nations – again, it’s both. Sam has provided quotes where Lenin discusses how a handful of nations exploit the rest of the world. But he omits the following quote:

An essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several Great Powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e. for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony.[7]

Neither myself nor Chris Harman, nor the other IST writers Sam criticised, are making this up. This is an essential feature of imperialism in Lenin’s words. Not something less significant than anything else, but another essential feature.

Some might conclude that Sam and I are merely choosing to emphasise different parts of Lenin’s writing. It is not uncommon for different people to read the same text and to take different messages from it. Quite often it is simply a subjective matter with no real way of telling who is right and who is wrong. This is not one of those occasions. There is a very clear way of verifying whether Sam is right or wrong. That is to see whether his assertions about what Lenin’s theory means fit with what Lenin said about the political issues of the day. In particular, Lenin’s attitude to Russia’s involvement in World War I demonstrates why Sam is simply wrong.

For if Lenin’s book really does teach that only countries that possess technological monopolies to exploit foreign workers can be imperialist, regardless of how much military capacity and other geopolitical might they possess, then Lenin would not have considered Russia in World War I to be imperialist. The same would also be true for Japan and other countries. The fact is well established: Lenin stridently believed that Russia was imperialist, that its war effort was imperialist, that it was one of the great powers etc. This was the case, for Lenin, both under the Tsar and also under bourgeois rule after February 1917. And this was despite Russia not having developed any of the key technologies of the day. It imported technologies such as electrical systems, industrial machinery and so on from western Europe, from where it also imported much of its capital.

With this fact Sam’s thesis that China is not imperialist in the “Leninist” sense is dead. China does not have to meet the specific economic criteria that Sam demands in order to be considered imperialist.

Lenin’s theory was not about classifying which powerful states were or were not imperialist. He considered all were. If Lenin had used the criteria Sam uses to determine that China is not imperialist, then Lenin would have also considered Russia during World War I not to be imperialist, nor the Japanese state which had defeated it in the 1904-5 war. Lenin held firmly contrary views and thus Sam’s attempt to present the notion of Chinese imperialism as inherently “un-Leninist” is false.

The world since 1916

So far in this essay I have focused on what I consider to be Sam’s errors in interpreting Lenin, and on the resulting falsity of Sam’s attempts to portray his ideas as steadfastly in-line with Lenin, and the ideas he is critiquing as fundamentally un-Leninist. However, this is not to say that we should assume that the contemporary analysis of imperialism that most closely resembles Lenin’s views is necessarily the most correct. There is no reason to treat Lenin’s text in a biblical way. It was written by a mortal, and it was written at a certain time in the history of capitalism. The statement “many things have changed since Lenin’s time” might be banal, but that is because its truth should be obvious.

What is of the most enduring importance in Lenin’s work on imperialism is his political approach to it. He was intransigently against imperialism, he understood that the geopolitical machinations of the imperialist epoch, including wars unleashed by the powerful states, must be opposed, especially by the socialists in the belligerent exploiter countries, that “the main enemy is at home”, and that revolutionary parties needed to be built that practised precisely this intransigent anti-imperialism. I would argue most stridently for Lenin’s political approach to imperialism, and that these principles are essentially timeless. And I am sure that Sam would agree.

As for any other theoretical statement or prediction of Lenin, not to mention outstanding contemporaries like Bukharin, these definitely contain insights into both the history of imperialism and its contemporary form. Many of Lenin’s predictions were proven correct. For instance, his belief that any peace declared under capitalism would merely be a prelude to the next war was dramatically proven correct with the carnage of World War II.

Other parts of Lenin’s thesis do not describe imperialism today. For instance, number 3 on Sam’s list of Lenin’s “five principal features characterising imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century” was “the exceptional importance of export of capital as opposed to the export of commodities”. As Sam acknowledges, this cannot serve as a major part of the theory of imperialism, because many countries, including China and small economies like Bolivia export capital today, and as Sam points out, many MNCs are opting to outsource bulk production to the lower-wage economies rather than export capital there.

Sam introduced an additional theory to assist him in transforming Lenin’s view into his own; the theory of unequal exchange between the third world and the first world. Whereas Sam writes that “Lenin does not specifically articulate the concept of unequal exchange in his book on imperialism”, he would have been more correct to write that he did not articulate it all.

The theorist of unequal exchange that Sam does cite is the late Belgian Trotskyist, Ernest Mandel, whose thesis on the topic was published in 1972, towards the end of the long post-war boom, and hence before the onset of neoliberalism and the outsourcing craze. While Mandel wrote after the collapse of the colonial empires of Lenin’s time, he developed his notion of unequal exchange to refer to a somewhat different economic process than that described by Sam in relation to today’s world. This is shown when Mandel chides Arghiri Emmanuel and Samir Amin for being “incapable of showing why countries with high wages undergo industrialization while underdeveloped nations possess relatively little industry”.[8] While this was a reasonable objection at the time, this particular concern no longer fits contemporary capitalism whereby growth in industrial output is centred in low wage economies.

Ultimately, the task of evaluating the economic validity of the theory of “unequal exchange” would require the gathering of vast amounts of empirical data, establishing mathematical equations and so forth. I have neither the time nor expertise do this, Sam has not done this work either and Mandel is no longer around to help. Thus it will suffice to distil the conclusion that Sam draws from the unequal exchange concept: that the relative economic position of every country in the world system (with perhaps a few minor exceptions) will remain basically static.

There are many ways in which Sam seems unwilling to recognise the magnitude of changes to the world system since World War I. The most important changes have been 1) the process of decolonisation which since World War II has brought political independence to most countries of the world, 2) the emergence of ruling classes in a number of the former colonies whose members are among the richest capitalists in the world, and 3) the onset of the nuclear (and before that, the atomic) age which has made total war between major powers less likely as this poses the risk of nuclear Armageddon.[9]

For Sam not much has changed: the world is divided into exploiter and exploited nations with the division almost exactly as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. Back then it was

[t]he US, Germany and then Japan, along with a small number of other First World states – Western Europe, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – [who] positioned themselves on top or close to it just before the music stopped. A roll call of imperialist nations today contains largely the same names as 100 years ago. We would need only to add bits of nations: half of Korea, small pieces of historical China: Taiwan and the port city of Hong Kong, plus the port city state of Singapore as well as the non-national apartheid state of Israel.[10]

The list itself is as interesting as the expression “the music stopped”. For one thing it reads more like a list of states that Sam finds distasteful for being rich rather than a list of states which exercise power internationally. Perhaps this relates to another debate regarding the theory of a labour aristocracy.[11] It does not seem appropriate to explore this topic here, as Sam does not raise it in his article.

I will leave it to others to fully explore the humorous side of the inclusion of New Zealand’s sheep-romancing, hobbit economy, but a comparison with China does seem in order. China is the world’s second largest economy, with some already suggesting it has overtaken the US to become the largest. It is home to at least three corporations that each record annual revenues much larger than New Zealand’s GDP. Regarding military capacity, while China is certainly not as well resourced as the US (no one else comes close either, least of all New Zealand), it is the case that China has nuclear weapons, the most troops, the second most submarines and tanks and third most military aircraft in the world. It is also the world’s third largest arms exporter after Russia and the US. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Moreover, it is surely anyone’s guess as to what vital technologies New Zealand’s corporations have developed (and I don’t believe Australia’s corporations have achieved much more).

Sam’s theoretical framework does not seem well-suited to this reality because it would appear that no matter how big the Chinese economy gets, how massive its major firms become, how many billionaires it generates, how much capital its major banks control, how much military might it develops, or however much it may impinge upon the right of other nations, China will remain a victim of imperialism, and not an imperialist power. All of this could only change if it starts engineering and designing (and not just manufacturing) whatever replaces today’s phones, tablets, computers and auto-safety features. Only then will it join the imperial ranks of much smaller economies, and much less powerful states like New Zealand and Belgium.

Sam’s assertion that the world is divided cleanly between exploiter and exploited nations today just as it was a century ago also does not match reality. Large “third world” or “emerging” economies like Brazil, Saudi Arabia or India cannot be considered as having the same relationship to the world system as Haiti, Burma or Cambodia. This is not to say that capital based in the first world cannot exploit labour in the sizeable third-world or “emerging” economies. It does. But that fact does not prevent the capitals of these countries from growing into finance capitals of an important global magnitude, nor does it mean that these ruling classes are irrelevant when it comes to trade negotiations, let alone that they cannot become military powers.

Some data will further illuminate this point. On the Forbes billionaires list, even before we reach the richest Australian, Gina Rinehart, at US$15.6bn, we find Jack Ma from China with US$21bn, Robin Li from China with US$16.1bn, Dilip Shanghvi from India with US$17.9bn, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud of Saudi Arabia with US$21.5bn, Jorge Paulo Lehmann from Brazil with US$21.6bn, Mukesh Ambani from India with US$21.8bn, Aliko Dangote from Nigeria with US$23bn, and Carlos Slim Helu and family from Mexico with US$78.7bn.[12] The list certainly shows that the economic power of the established imperialist nations has not at all evaporated: the US has by far the most billionaires, including 12 of the richest 15 people in the world. Nevertheless, there are numerous third world capitalists who are significant by world standards.

The same is demonstrated when we look at lists of the largest corporations in the world. There are various ways to measure the largest companies, such as by revenue, by market capitalisation and so on. The Forbes 2000 claims to be “a comprehensive list of the world’s largest, most powerful public companies, as measured by revenues, profits, assets and market value”. One could debate whether its measurements are the most relevant, but it is interesting to note that it gives the top three spots to Chinese companies, and five out of the top ten (with the other five based in the US).[13] On another measure, three of the top ten corporations by revenue are headquartered in Beijing. Fortune’s Global 500 2014 has China with three out of the top ten.[14]

Political independence, which became the norm for the third world after World War II, has proven in most cases to be much more than a mere change in terminology. Local capitalist classes have been able to grow, to dominate (i.e. monopolise) entire sectors of their respective national economies and to wield political influence in their own countries. These states are the political property of the national ruling class and are not merely the plaything of foreign powers.

Some of the richest people and biggest corporations in the world now belong to these former colonies. This simply was not and could not be the case under the colonial system that existed in Lenin’s time.

Many decades after the collapse of the colonial empires, the world is a much more variegated place than in Lenin’s day. There are certainly many states with small economies that are simply exploited by imperialism, such as Bangladesh and El Salvador. There are powerful oppressor states which possess political, military and economic advantages that enable them to manipulate and exploit these countries; the US being the most obvious, along with France, the UK etc. But if all that exists are these two categories, then where does one put not only China, but also Brazil? Having gained independence in 1822, Latin America’s largest nation is today the seventh largest economy in the world, accounting for roughly three percent of global GDP, and has a higher military spending than either Israel or Australia. It has maintained a higher level of protected local industry than is typical in this era of neoliberal globalisation. Its unwillingness to accede to the terms proposed by the Bush Jnr. administration saw the scuttling of the free trade area of the Americas agreement. It is a country of some weight in the world system.

It would likewise be unwise to place India or Turkey or Malaysia in the same basket as Senegal. And if New Zealand is imperialist, how can you leave Saudi Arabia off the list when it has a population of 30 million and is the nineteenth largest economy in the world, making it a bigger economy than Switzerland? What of Qatar, with a population of just two million and the highest per capita GDP in the world and a bigger economy than New Zealand? Or the United Arab Emirates, with a population of 9.3 million and a per capita GDP similar to Italy’s and an economy twice the size of New Zealand’s?

Why does Sam leave Ireland off his list of transformed countries? It was once Europe’s most underdeveloped, impoverished backwater, with an “unequal exchange” with Britain if ever there was use for the term. Today it has a substantially higher per capita GDP than Britain, whether measured nominally or by purchase power parity. As the Proyect quote earlier revealed, South Africa is another country that does not neatly fit into the oppressor or oppressed camp.

The fact that today there are many countries that have had independence for well over half a century (longer in the case of most of Latin America), that some of these countries are home to some of the richest individuals and the biggest corporations are not minor changes. It is simply untenable to suggest that “the music stopped”.

This position confounds not only empirical reality, but also Lenin’s expectations. In his polemic against Kautsky he writes that, although Kautsky is correct that alliances between different imperialist powers are conceivable, the nature of the system will ensure they cannot last. Lenin writes:

Let us assume that these imperialist countries form alliances against one another in order to protect or enlarge their possessions, their interests and their spheres of influence in these Asiatic states; these alliances will be “inter-imperialist”, or “ultra-imperialist” alliances. Let us assume that all the imperialist countries conclude an alliance for the “peaceful” division of these parts of Asia; this alliance would be an alliance of “internationally united finance capital”. There are actual examples of alliances of this kind in the history of the twentieth century – the attitude of the powers to China, for instance. We ask, is it “conceivable”, assuming that the capitalist system remains intact – and this is precisely the assumption that Kautsky does make – that such alliances would be more than temporary, that they would eliminate friction, conflicts and struggle in every possible form?

The question has only to be presented clearly for any other than a negative answer to be impossible. This is because the only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc., is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc. And the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. Half a century ago Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with that of the Britain of that time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it “conceivable” that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question.[15]

It is inconceivable that the relative strength of imperialist powers will remain unchanged for even one or two decades. We should expect that economies that were once insignificant will become powers. This is not the silence of stopped music. Even more problematic for Sam is this: “the only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc., is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc.”. So rather than imperialism just being the exploitation of poor countries by wealthy countries, we find that it is indeed (also) a contest between powers testing their relative strength. Lenin mentions their “general economic strength”, not specifically their possession of technology patents, their financial strength, and their “military strength, etc.” It seems that the imperialist countries are those capitalist countries that possess a decent assortment of general economic strength (industrial capacity), financial strength (money) and military strength and possibly other forms of strength (etc.).

Defining the beast

Sam may well retort that my response to him does not present a full-fledged alternative theory and description of imperialism. It is true the present work is not that ambitious, but for sake of clarity and fairness I will have a go at a working definition:

Imperialism refers to the form that international relations take in a capitalist world system. Within this system the different states always possess significantly different amounts of power based chiefly on the relative size and advancement of their economies and militaries. States attempt to improve their economic and military advantages over rivals by means that can include direct conflict, proxy conflict and also through forming alliances. This competitive state system reflects the competitive nature of the capitalist economic system of which it is part. The giant corporations that dominate the global economy have come to rely on the states in which they are based to guarantee their interests internationally, including ensuring favourable conditions for investment, access to markets, access to important raw materials such as oil, protection of overseas investments, etc. Likewise these states depend on the health of these giant companies to ensure economic and social stability at home. Since neither the economic, military and strategic position of various powers can remain stable indefinitely, international conflict in inevitable. Imperialism means the inevitability of arms races, of wars and occupations, as well as economic violence perpetrated by powerful nations and their corporations against the working class and poor of the weaker nations (as well as the working class and poor of their own countries).

Readers can feel free to quibble or expand or edit as they see fit, but it gives you a picture of what I consider imperialism to be. It is not the rehashing of a definition given by an important revolutionary during debates from nearly a century ago, but a definition given by an unimportant one who has read their works, read about their times and also about the world since then and is trying to sum up a complex concept.

This definition talks about power: military and strategic power. I would have been happy to have worked in the term “geopolitical power” too if it would have suited. We have to talk about power if we are talking about imperialism. Why is it that the term imperialism made such a resurgence in usage in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks? When Bush said “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” and began invading Afghanistan, there was a marked shift in public discourse away from post-nation state globalisation towards a discussion of imperialism.[16] Sam may dismiss these voices as “liberals” or whatever, but clearly the term evokes a certain meaning for people well beyond the IST. Moreover, if we were to use Sam’s definition, it makes no sense that we so often hear and read about imperialist war or imperialist occupations, because we really should be hearing about Apple’s new imperialist iPhone features or Bosch’s imperialist electronic stability program for passenger vehicles. Have all of us who use the term in this way really misinterpreted it so sharply, even people like myself and the editors of Monthly Review who swear to have read Lenin at least twice?

This is not simply a matter of linguistics. For a definition of imperialism to be useful it must account for the ongoing prevalence of military arms build-ups and of war. Can Sam’s theory do that? If imperialism is simply an economic system in which all of the poor countries are coerced into a relationship of exploitation with all of the rich countries by their own lack of technological patents, wherein lies the need for extra-economic violence? Why invade Iraq since it lacks the technology of Halliburton or its French competitor (or co-imperialist?) Technip. This imperialism wins all the time by the technologically-advanced nature of its designs; it shouldn’t need shock and awe campaigns or regime changes.

In the little that he does write about anything military, Sam suggests that “[w]ithin Lenin’s framework, inter-imperialist wars are secondary to exploitation of the poor economies, as these wars are ultimately about redrawing the terms and conditions of that exploitation.”[17] I would prefer to say that they both happen under imperialism, but not to rank them, because stating that the people of Iraq have been primarily exploited and secondarily victimised by US aggression is dubious. The war of 1991, the sanctions and frequent bombings, the 2003 war and subsequent occupations have yet to increase the amount of surplus extracted by US capital from Iraq, but it has caused literally millions of deaths and unimaginable misery.

The more general point is that at times Sam’s rendering of imperialism sometimes makes it seem as if the capitalists of all the rich, first world countries are harmoniously extracting wealth from the third world, with conflict as a minor afterthought. While I absolutely do not mean to suggest that Sam’s theory shares the dubious politics of post-1914 Kautsky, I cannot help but notice a certain similarity in the theories: both seem to depict a system of exploitation in which the conflicting interests of major powers do not necessarily result in regular mass bloodshed. Alas, I fear that twenty-first century militarism is more damaging than that.

Targeting the IST

Sam’s treatment of writers from the International Socialist Tendency, particularly Chris Harman, involves frustrating misrepresentations of their actual writings. One can criticise or agree with Harman and/or the IST all one wants, but misrepresention cannot lead to clarification.

I will quote Harman’s article at length, not because I consider the content to be so enlightening, but to show how he has been misrepresented. Writing in the immediate aftermath of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (and clearly before the occupation turned into a quagmire) Harman is replying in part to a comment by Bernard Cassen of the campaign group for financial system reform, ATTAC, who responded to the rise of the anti-war movement by saying that “whether war breaks out or not, B-52s and special forces will not alter poverty in Brazil or hunger in Argentina.”[18] Remarking on the “dilemma” facing US imperialism, Harman stated the following, with the parts quoted by Sam in bold:

US imperialism looked immensely strong in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But none of its central problems have been solved. Its victory will frighten other governments in the Third World to jump to its orders. It will be that much easier for the IMF to impose its will on countries whose rulers might otherwise be tempted to cave in to opposition from their own people. That is why it was completely wrong for Bernard Cassen of ATTAC France to counterpose opposition to war to opposition to the measures that harm the world’s poor.

But the increased exploitation and impoverishment of much of the Third World will not overcome the pressures on profitability and the competitiveness of US capitalism. The fundamental fact that permitted decolonisation without economic disaster for the advanced capitalisms half a century ago remains unchanged. Most investment from advanced capitalist countries is directed to other advanced capitalist countries and the small minority of newly industrialised countries for the simple reason that that is where most profit is to be obtained. Most of the Third World, including nearly all of Africa and much of Latin America outside Brazil and Mexico, is of diminishing economic importance for the dynamic of the system as a whole. Profits and interest payments from such regions are the lettering on the icing on the cake for world capital, not even a slice of the cake itself.[19]

What is objectionable in Sam’s rendering of Harman is that he cuts out the bit that makes it clear that Harman does indeed consider that US imperialism acts to increase the exploitation and impoverishment of the third world, because Sam wants to suggest that only real Leninists like himself see this. Sam tells us that “[f]ocusing on national oppression and exploitation for Harman ‘deflects attention from the central dynamics of the world system’.” But Harman is not saying that, he is saying the opposite. If you read the lengthy quote above, Harman is arguing precisely that Bernard Cassan is wrong to criticise people for focusing on the national oppression of Iraq; as Harman sees it, this is not a distraction from the other problems of the system, because war, national oppression, exploitation and impoverishment are integrated, mutually reinforcing aspects of the same brutal system. Sam continues:

Thus Harman’s view (against Lenin) that the Third World is not systematically exploited, that it is not a “most important location of accumulation”, serves as a theoretical justification for his political hostility to Third World nationalism.[20]

We have dealt sufficiently with the “Harman says the third world isn’t exploited” myth. And I am not holding out on the reader regarding “political hostility to third world nationalism”: Sam literally makes not a single further comment explaining what that means. I am sure that Sam is not suggesting that the IST rejects Lenin’s theses on the right of nations to self-determination. Moreover, there is a big difference between, on the one hand, rejecting the politics of third world nationalism in favour of a class-based socialist perspective, and on the other, rejecting movements inspired in whole or in part by third world nationalism. I would argue that it makes complete sense to do the former and not the latter.

Socialist Alternative emerged from expulsions from the official IST group in Australia in 1995. During the campaign against Israel’s war on Lebanon in December 2006, we published a pamphlet Nationalism and Revolution in the Arab World, a collection of articles by Sandra Bloodworth, editor of this journal. These articles were first published in the early 1990s while she was a member of the official Australian IST group. These articles provide a good example of how socialists from the tradition being dismissed by Sam were clearly able to recognise the galvanising effect and revolutionary possibilities brought forth by a third world (in this case Arab) nationalist sentiment, while asserting the need for distinctly socialist politics. After discussing the region-wide wave of protest in defence of Iraq against the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, Sandra wrote:

The upheavals illustrated the depth of pan-Arab sentiment, and its mobilising power. But they also drew out the contradictions and limitations of Arab nationalism. It is important to understand both these elements, because socialists seek both to link up with the aspirations of the mass of Arab people and to break them from their illusions in their rulers.

The task of revolutionary socialists is to join with the masses when they fight for national liberation in order to win them to a class outlook, build up their class organisations and win them to the struggle for socialism. Today that means we support the movement fuelled by Arab nationalism. Given the right circumstances, it could be the underpinning for social revolution in the region to overthrow not just imperialist domination, but local tyrants as well. That said, Marxists do not support such a movement uncritically. For instance, we did not support the wave of anti-US protests because we have any political sympathy for Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, we were among his most determined opponents long before the US invasion of the Gulf in 1990. Neither do we endorse the politics of the Palestine Liberation Organisation even though they are genuine anti-imperialist fighters. We support national struggles in so far as they come into conflict with the major capitalist powers. But we argue for a socialist strategy to win the struggle.”[21]

The reference to the PLO, other than dating the article somewhat, also further underlines the importance of maintaining a critical view of nationalist politics and arguing for a “socialist strategy to win the struggle”, in light of the Fatah-led PLO ceasing to perform a genuine anti-imperialist role in the succeeding years.

How exactly suggesting that the third world is not a “most important location of accumulation” provides a “theoretical justification” for “political hostility to third world nationalism” is unclear. The actual justification for a class-based socialist politics rather than a nationalist one lies in the conflicting interests of the ruling class of each nation and the working class. If one wants an example of why this matters, South Africa provides a clear one. There, following the victory in defeating apartheid, the nationalist ANC (in alliance with the South African Communist Party and the COSATU union federation) has seen a transition to a form of capitalism that is inclusive of a black political and business elite, but where poverty has increased and the wealth gap between black and whites has actually increased.

Sam ends his response to Harman by announcing that “[w]hatever the truth of Harman’s position on the unimportance of exploitation of the poor countries for imperialism, it cannot be said to have anything in common with Lenin.”[22] Why? Harman is saying that the US will bully smaller countries into accepting trade deals that further impoverish them, but there are weaknesses in the US economy that simply cannot be resolved by squeezing more value out of tiny economies like Haiti or Mali. I would say that this may or may not be true, but to assert that such an analysis is or isn’t Leninist is asinine rhetoric. This is firstly because Lenin, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not leave any firm predictions of how the US economy will be faring in the early twenty-first century, or its options for resolving any underlying problems. Secondly, Lenin never suggested that the exploitation of poorer countries inoculated the imperialist countries against economic crises. Therefore Harman is either right or wrong, but not inherently un-Leninist as Sam would have it.

The need to create imperialist and non-imperialist powers

As stated earlier, neither Lenin nor any other of the classical Marxist theorists of imperialism ever attempted to demonstrate that any of the powers in their day were non-imperialist. It was simply not part of their theoretical mission to demonstrate how a state with a significant economy and military might would not be imperialist.

This particular theoretical goal only emerged for any Marxist due to the emergence of the USSR as a major world power by the end of World War II. Under Stalin the USSR had experienced significant industrialisation, which centred on military development. In 1931, Stalin had stated that the USSR was “fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.”[23]

The test of its preparedness for military battle was World War II, in which the USSR emerged as a victor, in alliance with the US and the UK. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt famously carved up the world between them at the Yalta conference. To see the USSR as simply a victim of imperialism as it clearly was in its early years was now a difficult task. Indeed, a case could be put that under Stalin, the imperial status of the previous Russian empire had been restored. After all, the Tsar’s “prison-house of nations” was now almost fully intact. Moreover, the USSR was granted a sphere of influence over what became known as the Eastern Bloc countries.

How these societies were to be understood was probably the main issue that divided socialists into various competing tendencies or internationals in the succeeding decades. The various debates do not warrant rehashing here for a few reasons: they are complex debates and would consume many pages, they have been dealt with at great length in many other places, and finally because they are not of strict relevance for our understanding of imperialism today or into the foreseeable future. This is because the societies that were previously understood as “really existing socialism”, “bureaucratic state capitalism”, “deformed or degenerated workers’ states” or what-have-you largely ceased to exist more than two decades ago. There are exceptions that could be debated, such as Cuba or Vietnam or North Korea, but however one views the class nature of any of these countries, I am sure neither Sam nor myself consider any of these states to be an imperialist power. All of which leaves China.

China is still ruled by its Communist Party, still has a red flag, a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” rhetoric and so forth. But given the nature of its economic transformation since the 1980s no one much considers it to be any but a capitalist society.[24] The Australian political tradition from which Sam originates decided this to be the case most emphatically back in the 1990s.[25]

This is important to understand, otherwise the present debate may unnecessarily revert into one about the class nature of the USSR, or of Hungary in 1956, or worse still, who loves Cuba the most. As enthralling as those debates often are, these are not the lines of theoretical and political demarcation relating to the present debate. We all (save for a select few hyper-deluded Stalinists) understand that China today is capitalist.

Debates around whether the USSR in its superpower phase was imperialist were complicated by debates about whether it was capitalist. If we understood imperialism as a phase of capitalism or as an inherent feature of capitalism, then it could be argued that it was wrong to see the USSR as imperialist if it was not capitalist. Of course it was argued by others that its economic nature was a form of capitalism and its seemingly imperialist behaviour was evidence of this. The point was that there was at least a logic to describing a non-capitalist power as something other than imperialist in Lenin’s terms. If we all acknowledge that China today is capitalist, we see that these debates of old do not determine the present debate.

It is not only Marxists operating within the IST, or who hold its view that the former “really existing socialisms” were state capitalist, who today recognise China as an emerging imperialist power. For instance, writers from the Fourth International, which viewed these historical systems as degenerated workers’ states, write about China as an emerging imperialist power. Pierre Rousset “is a member of the leadership of the Fourth International particularly involved in solidarity with Asia [and] a member of the NPA [New Anticapitalist Party] in France”.[26] Writing in International Viewpoint, he argued that

China is not an “emerging country” but a power that has emerged. It is not a “sub-imperialism” ensuring order in its own region, but an imperialism “in formation”. The new Chinese bourgeoisie is aiming to play in the big league.[27]

To fit his thesis Sam attempts to downplay Chinese economic and military power. In my view Sam does not lie or present falsehoods about China here. The information he provides is true enough, and indeed he is right to point to the real limitations to China’s economic and military strength. For instance, there are many ways in which China simply cannot match the United States as a global power. Yet the problem with Sam’s discussion of China is that it is stubbornly one-sided. He is determined to only present the limitations and not the strengths.

I have already spelled out some of China’s strengths as a military power, and also discussed the scale of its growing economy. A few more quick points should suffice to demonstrate why Sam’s depiction is too one-sided. Sam points out that China’s acquisitions of overseas MNCs has not progressed all that far. But he does not point out the exceptions, namely the food industry. Since 2010 China’s Bright Food has bought a majority holding in New Zealand’s largest dairy company Synlait, and even bigger food companies in Australia, the UK and Israel. In 2013, the biggest ever Chinese acquisition of a US business occurred when the WH Group bought Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer.

China’s next major area of strategic interest, in Rousset’s estimation, was to “ensure secure channels of intercontinental communication by buying ports and airports, investing in merchant shipping and gradually deploying its military fleet on the occasion, particularly, of operations against piracy on the high seas”.[28] In June 2014 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Greece overseeing the signing of a US$5bn deal for China to increase its stake in the Piraeus port, including exports and shipbuilding. The BBC reported that

China also showed an interest in buying railways and building an airport in Crete, [and] is eager to take a majority stake in the Piraeus port. A Chinese company already runs two piers at the port. Greece is keen to attract foreign investment to reduce its national debt and high unemployment rate.[29]

As the largest exporter in the world, China has proven capable of influencing the developments in the maritime industry, as when it blocked the link-up between the world leaders in maritime transport, Maersk (Danish), MSC (Swiss-Italian) and CMA-CGM (French).[30]

As for China extending itself as a geopolitical – and not just economic – power, the evidence is emerging. Of course there are some necessary caveats: China’s power is still in its early phases, the success of its development remains to be seen, and that the US still has innumerable geopolitical advantages over China and all other contenders (especially its global military bases system). But developments in the South China Seas are something of a portent. As Rousset noted:

Against Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan, Beijing [took] possession of or demands the entirety of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Reef, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; and it is extending its own territorial waters to [the] point of leaving virtually nothing for the other countries of Southeast Asia. Points of military friction have emerged to the west with Vietnam and to the east with Japan.[31]

While Sam found reasons to dismiss the significance of the enormous financial assets possessed by China’s banking monopolies, the Chinese state is increasingly using its financial reserves to influence international developments. China is presently attempting to establish a new US$50bn international infrastructure bank, which it will predominantly fund with contributions from South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and India. This bank aims to rival the US-dominated World Bank and the Japanese controlled Asia Development Bank.[32]

Suffice it to say, China’s capitalist class has in fact risen considerably since the state leadership began integrating into the world economy some three decades ago.


Sam’s assertion that his own views of imperialism are in essence those of Lenin is not accurate. Sam wants to use Lenin to define powers that lack technological monopolies (China in particular) as non-imperialist, but this cannot accord with Lenin’s view that Russia in World War I was imperialist. Lenin’s book was not concerned to provide a mechanism for declaring that certain capitalist powers were not imperialist. Instead it is correct, and in accordance with Lenin, to view all capitalist powers (countries with sizeable militaries and economies) as part of imperialism. While exploitation of the poorer countries by capitals based in the wealthier countries is a feature of capitalist imperialism, we cannot understand imperialism unless we see it as a system of competition between the powerful states. The rivalries between contending powers involves diplomatic, economic and military forms, with the latter being an indispensable part of the destructive nature of this system. As an emerging economic and military superpower, China is now a player in this terrifying game.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2006, “Nationalism, Revolution and the Arab World”, http://socialismandarabrevolution.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/8/.

Bramble, Tom 2012, “Is there a labour aristocracy is Australia?”, Marxist Left Review, 4, Winter.

Harman, Chris 2003, “Analysing Imperialism”, International Socialism, 2, 99, Summer.

King, Sam 2014, “Lenin’s theory of imperialism: a defence of its relevance in the 21st century”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter.

Lenin 1915, introduction to N. I. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial/ intro.htm.

Lenin 1916, Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/.

Lenin 1918a, preface to Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/pref01.htm.

Lenin 1918b, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/.

Mandel, Ernest 1975, Late Capitalism, New Left Books.

Rousset, Pierre 2014 “Chinese ambitions – An imperialism in formation”, International Viewpoint, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip. php?article3468, 22 July.

Stalin, J.V. 1939, The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), chapter 11, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/ works/1939/x01/ch11.htm.

Sweezy, Paul M., Harry Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “US military bases and empire”, Monthly Review, March 2002.

[1] See for instance Lenin 1918b.

[2] King 2014.

[3] Louis Proyect, “Is Russia imperialist: a reply to Roger Annis and Sam Williams”, http://louisproyect.org/2014/06/22/is-russia-imperialist-a-reply-to-roger-annis-and-sam-williams/, 22 June 2014.

[4] King 2014, p74.

[5] Lenin 1918a.

[6] Lenin 1915.

[7] Lenin 1916, my emphasis.

[8] Mandel 1975, p352.

[9] The “logic” of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is not an argument against unilateral disarmament, but it is a factor in explaining the changed way in which inter-imperialist rivalries are pursued post-1945.

[10] King 2014, p108.

[11] See for example Bramble 2012.

[12] Forbes, “The World’s Billionaires”, www.forbes.com/billionaires, 2014.

[13] Forbes, “The World’s Billionaires”.

[14] Fortune, “Global 500 2014”, http://fortune.com/global500/, 2014.

[15] Lenin 1916.

[16] This was noted in Sweezy et al, 2002.

[17] King 2014, p74.

[18] Quoted in Harman 2003.

[19] Harman 2003.

[20] King 2014, p95.

[21]Bloodworth 2006, my emphases.

[22] King 2014, p80.

[23] Stalin 1939.

[24] There are exceptions to the pattern of being sensible. Readers can Google for some if they wish.

[25] Doug Lorimer, “The class nature of the Chinese state”, http://links.org.au/ node/2773, 1999; and Democratic Socialist Party 1999, “Theses on the class nature of the People’s Republic of China”, http://links.org.au/node/176, 1999.

[26] See www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?auteur52.

[27] Rousset 2014.

[28] Rousset 2014.

[29] BBC News, “China and Greece sign deals worth $5bn during Li visit”, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27960661, 21 June 2014.

[30] For further information see David Crouch, “Maersk forms new alliance with MSC after Chinese setback”, Financial Times, 10 July 2014.

[31] Rousset 2014.

[32] Nick Beams, “US and China clash over infrastructure bank”, World Socialist Web Site, www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/27/bank-o27.html, 27 October 2014.

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