On the Historical Specificity of the Marxist Theory of Imperialism

Nikolai Bukharin

Grigorii Zinoviev


If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.

— Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist Development, from Lenin: Collected Works, Volume 22, pg. 266 (1915)

Modern imperialism is the social-economic policy of finance capital tending toward the creation of the most comprehensive economic territorial entities and world empires possible. It is characterized by the tendency to supplant free trade decisively with the system of protective tariffs and to subordinate economic life completely to the great monopolistic combines, such as the trusts, cartels, banking consortia, etc. Imperialism signifies the highest stage in the development of capitalism, in which not only commodity exports but capital exports as well occupy a place of quintessential importance. It characterizes an epoch in which the world is partitioned among a few great capitalist powers and in which the struggle proceeds along the lines of repartitioning it and partitioning the remaining areas.

— Grigorii Zinoviev, “What is Imperialism?” (1916)

The historian or economist who places under one denominator the structure of modern capitalism, i.e., modern production relations, and the numerous types of production relations that formerly led to wars of conquest, will understand nothing in the development of modern world economy.  One must single out the specific elements which characterise our time, and analyse them.  This was Marx’s method, and this is how a Marxist must approach the analysis of imperialism.  We now understand that it is impossible to confine oneself to the analysis of the forms, in which a policy manifests itself; for instance, one cannot be satisfied with defining a policy as that of “conquest,” “expansion,” “violence,” etc.  One must analyse the basis on which it rises and which it serves to widen.  We have defined imperialism as the policy of finance capital.  Therewith we uncovered the functional significance of that policy.  It upholds the structure of finance capital; it subjugates the world to the domination of finance capital; in place of the old pre-capitalist, or the old capitalist, production relations, it put the production relations of finance capital.  Just as finance capitalism (which must not be confused with money capital, for finance capital is characterised by being simultaneously banking and industrial capital) is an historically limited epoch, confined only to the last few decades, so imperialism, as the policy of finance capital, is a specific historic category.

— Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, pg. 114 (1917)

Modern imperialism is not the prelude to the expansion of capital, as in Bauer’s model; on the contrary, it is only the last chapter of its historical process of expansion: it is the period of universally sharpened world competition between the capitalist states for the last remaining non-capitalist areas on earth. In this final phase, economic and political catastrophe is just as much the intrinsic, normal mode of existence for capital as it was in the ‘primitive accumulation’ of its development phase. The discovery of America and the sea route to India were not just Promethean achievements of the human mind and civilization but also, and inseparably, a series of mass murders of primitive peoples in the New World and large-scale slave trading with the peoples of Africa and Asia. Similarly, the economic expansion of capital in its imperialist final phase is inseparable from the series of colonial conquests and World Wars which we are now experiencing. What distinguishes imperialism as the last struggle for capitalist world domination is not simply the remarkable energy and universality of expansion but — and this is the specific sign that the circle of development is beginning to close — the return of the decisive struggle for expansion from those areas which are being fought over back to its home countries. In this way, imperialism brings catastrophe as a mode of existence back from the periphery of capitalist development to its point of departure. The expansion of capital, which for four centuries had given the existence and civilization of all non-capitalist peoples in Asia, Africa, America and Australia over to ceaseless convulsions and general and complete decline, is now plunging the civilized peoples of Europe itself into a series of catastrophes whose final result can only be the decline of civilization or the transition to the socialist mode of production. Seen in this light, the position of the proletariat with regard to imperialism leads to a general confrontation with the rule of capital. The specific rules of its conduct are given by that historical alternative.

According to official ‘expert’ Marxism, the rules are quite different. The belief in the possibility of accumulation in an ‘isolated capitalist society’, the belief that capitalism is conceivable even without expansion, is the theoretical formula of a quite distinct tactical tendency. The logical conclusion of this idea is to look on the phase of imperialism not as a historical necessity, as the decisive conflict for socialism, but as the wicked invention of a small group of people who profit from it. This leads to convincing the bourgeoisie that, even from the point of view of their capitalist interests, imperialism and militarism are harmful, thus isolating the alleged small group of beneficiaries of this imperialism and forming a bloc of the proletariat with broad sections of the bourgeoisie in order to ‘moderate’ imperialism, starve it out by ‘partial disarmament’ and ‘draw its claws’! Just as liberalism in the period of its decline appeals for a well-informed as against an ill-informed monarchy, the ‘Marxist center’ appeals for the bourgeoisie it will educate as against the ill-advised one, for international disarmament treaties as against the disaster course of imperialism, for the peaceful federation of democratic nation-states as against the struggle of the great powers for armed world domination. The final confrontation between proletariat and capital to settle their world-historical contradiction is converted into the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to ‘moderate’ the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states.

— Rosa Luxemburg, Anti-Critique (1915)

My reason for citing the above excerpts is that I feel that the Marxist theory of imperialism — as developed by Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin — has been widely abused in recent decades in analyzing the intervention of advanced capitalist states (the U.S. or members of the European Union) into less developed countries.  While there can be no doubt that there exist some parallels and continuities between the kind of self-interested exploitation of Third World countries, typically ex-colonies, that takes place today and the imperialism of old, these theorists understood it as a specific outgrowth of monopoly or finance capitalism.  If I might be permitted to grant this phase of capitalism a periodicity, I would probably place it between 1880-1929.  Since this time, capitalism has undergone not one but two drastic reconfigurations (Fordism and neoliberalism).  For this reason, I think that the term should not be so loosely thrown around in describing current affairs, as many of these categories need to be reworked to fit the present day.

There are many fundamental differences between the phenomenon Lenin et al. described as “imperialism” and what has more recently been dubbed “imperialism” (or, perhaps more fittingly, “neo-imperialism”).

Lenin understood imperialism to entail a certain underlying logic, the bloody competition between great capitalist powers to carve up the earth according to zones of influence and direct colonial administration in pursuit of new markets, raw materials, and cheap labor.  Moreover, he believed that this competition between the great capitalist powers of the world, which were at the time mostly European but also included Japan and the United States, would escalate to the point where an inter-imperialist war, by definition a world war, was inevitable.  This was a multipolar world, in which no one great power could be said to predominate completely, and in which large-scale alliances were formed in anticipation of major conflict that everyone knew was on the horizon.  Also, imperialism constituted the logical outgrowth of the shift from liberal capitalism, where the prevailing Manchester School ideology of “free markets” dominated and liberalism (quite contrary to its historical aspirations) held the reigns of state power, from 1848-1873, to monopoly or finance capitalism, where smaller competitors were gradually pushed out as major trusts swallowed up their rivals and cut deals with the governments in order to corner the market in the aftermath of the “long crisis” of 1873.

What leftists generally understand imperialism to mean today is the more or less cooperative domination of either the single world superpower, the US, or in tandem with its various allies in NATO (another Cold War holdover) or the UN.  While military occupations clearly last over years of bloody conflict, the point is not direct colonial administration but the indirect establishment of quasi-independent regimes that will be “friendly” to US or European interests.  No one really believes that these various military interventions around the world are actually going to lead to an armed conflict between, say, the European Union and the US, or between Russia and the US, or even China and the US.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a decidedly unipolar order.  In terms of concurrent transformations in the organic composition of capital and the corresponding historical periodicities of capitalism, we seem to have reverted to a “neoliberal” valorization of free markets and the deregulation of capital flows.  There is some debate as to whether neoliberalism is merely an ideological pretext that masks deep complicity with state powers, or whether it is a socioeconomic reality, but clearly the form of capitalism that Lenin felt specifically motivated imperialism in his time does not exist today.