A Study of the Marxist (and Non-Marxist) Theory of Imperialism

The Death of Global Imperialism (1920s-1930s)

As part of my study of the spatial dialectics of capitalism, I have been reading not only the more recent Marxist literature by Henri Lefebvre on The Production of Space or David Harvey’s excellent Spaces of Capital, but also some of the more classic works on the subject.

Marx’s own account of the spatiality of capitalism can be found in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, his Grundrisse of the early 1860s, and his posthumously published Capital, Volume II.  In the Manifesto, he talks at length in the first section of the globality of capitalism, of the formation of the world-market as part of the historical mission of the bourgeoisie.  In the latter two works I mentioned, the spatial dimension of capital is raised in connection with the ever-improving means of transport and communication, in facilitating the circulation of commodities.  Marx explains the dynamic in capitalism by which it breaks through every spatial barrier that it comes across, such that it seems to embody a sort of terrestrial infinity realizing itself through time.

But I am interested in some of the later work that was done on the Marxist theory of imperialism, both before and immediately after the 1917 Revolution.  This would have an obvious bearing on the spatial extension of capitalism throughout the world.  In this connection, I have drawn up a brief reading list:

  1. John Atkinson Hobson.  Imperialism: A Study (1902).  Though a pacifist and political liberal, Lenin considered his study of imperialism vastly superior to Kautsky’s, which had by then joined forces with the bourgeois apologists.
  2. Rudolf Hilferding.   Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development (1910).  This book was extremely influential in its time, and established a number of concepts regarding monopoly capitalism and finance capital that Lenin would later rely upon.  The two chapters on “The Export of Capital” and “The Proletariat and Imperialism” are relevant to any study on imperialism.
  3. Rosa Luxemburg.  The Accumulation of Capital (1913).  This is Luxemburg’s greatest contribution to the economic theory of Marxism.  Though she and Lenin disagreed over some of its premises and conclusion, the book remains extremely important for the analysis of imperialism.  The chapter on “Foreign Loans” addresses this directly.
  4. Vladimir Lenin.  Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist Development (1915-1916).  This work scarcely needs any introduction.  The entire book is a study of imperialism as a stage in capitalist development.
  5. Nikolai Bukharin.  Imperialism and World Economy (1917).  This book, which includes a favorable introduction from Lenin, seems to me to perhaps be the most pertinent to my own studies, since it places the “world economy” as  a centerpiece for its analysis.

I am hoping perhaps a few of my Marxist friends will join me in reading some selections of these books.  In my understanding of the subject, the imperialism described by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Bukharin were very specific to the time in which they were living.  According to their theories, it involved vast capitalist trusts and cartels, gigantic monopolies, along with huge amounts of finance capital backing them through the banks.  I think that Lenin’s theory of imperialism is all too often invoked in describing present-day imperialist ventures.  It continues to be a force within the greater complex of capitalist globalization, which has been taking place ever since the social formation first emerged.  But historical conditions have changed since Lenin’s time, and in light of the neo-liberalist recalibration of capitalism, I think some of the fundamental categories we retain from Lenin’s analysis of imperialism might have to be rethought or slightly modified to accommodate present-day realities.

I personally am interested in the historical imperialism that Lenin et al. were studying, i.e. the form of imperialism that existed between 1880 and 1939.  Are there any other suggestions for reading on this subject? Ren, I’m looking to you.  But others are welcome to make suggestions as well.

2 thoughts on “A Study of the Marxist (and Non-Marxist) Theory of Imperialism

  1. I hate to say this, but Louis Proyect wrote interesting posts about the nature of imperialism.

    I’ve seen on blogs, some good discussions about imperialism, like is Israel imperialist? Another discussion is about Brazil.

    I shudder when most leftists use the word imperialism, thinking it’s overt colonialism.

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