Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

What is imperialism?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The speedy overthrow of the Saddam Hussain’­s regime has resulted in a wave of propaganda emanating from the leaders of the coalition forces. Bush, Blair and Howard are now basking in the supposed vindication of their aggressive policies towards Iraq.

At the same time, the peace movement has seen a marked decline in numbers. Since at this stage, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq it would be ludicrous to attribute this decline to a change of opinion about the morality of the war on behalf of the population. Instead, the expressions of demoralisation and defeatism amongst the ranks of those recently inspired to protest suggest another explanation.

Many people appear to be expressing the sentiment that the war is over, and that the military supremacy of the imperial forces displayed in the Gulf demonstrates the unchangeable might of US capitalism. It is precisely this sentiment that Bush and Co are delighted to see being adopted at all levels of society. If the impoverished majority of the world population holds this opinion, they are unlikely to challenge the US Empire. If the rich capitalists believe it, they are likely to invest. However, the perspective put forward by Marxists appears to stand in stark contrast to this defeatist position. In Lenin’s view “the economic nature of imperialism…[must be defined as] capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism.”

How can Marxists come to such a conclusion? The answer lies in a materialist analysis of imperialism that recognises its place within the process of human evolution. Through such an analysis it can be shown that imperialism has not only accelerates the development of society, but at the same time, brings it to the point where it creates the necessity for the society to overthrow the system which it serves.

Imperialism, the jack-boot of globalisation

Imperialism is not a recent phenomenon of human evolution. In fact its origins can be found in embryonic stages of class society. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the co-founder of Marxist theory, Frederich Engels demonstrates the materialist origin of imperialism.

As primitive tribes developed surplus supplies of food they began to free themselves from the constant task of obtaining the means of subsistence. Thus they enabled themselves to turn their forces towards warfare, expanding their wealth through the conquest of territories and the enforcement of slave labour. The Roman Empire grew to immense proportions upon this system, its policy of enslavement and colonial development pushed its rule to the far corners of Europe and beyond.

In all stages of human development imperialism has extended the boundaries of human interaction. European explorers, funded by their respective empires, paved the way for European imperialism to spread to every continent on the planet. Upon reaching many of these far-flung regions of the world, often the invaders discovered pre-existing imperialist systems, such as the Incan empire that stretched for three thousand miles across South America.

In such cases these developed societies further accelerated the integration of the world into a global economy. In South America the indigenous systems of exploitation were so advanced that often the Spanish needed to do little more than place themselves at the top of the pre-prepared food chain in order to extract wealth from their colonies.

Imperialism as an impetus for social transformation

As Western European empires grew through imperialist expansion, their social structures were ultimately transformed to produce the equipment necessary to run their economies. The task of producing modern weaponry and transport systems fell upon the merchants and embryonic bourgeoisie, whose wealth was based on industry, trade and factories.

The great need for these products lead to the rapid growth of this class, to the point where it challenged the rule of the monarchies and landed classes. The bourgeois democratic revolutions in Western Europe overthrew the feudal system, freeing up the distribution of capital that had been stifled by the monopolies of the monarchies. Thus imperialism led to the revolutionary development of a Bourgeois ruling class and the rise of capitalism as the dominant mode of production in Europe.

Imperialism under Capitalism

The essential nature of the capitalism is the persuit of profit which leads to a frenzied attempt to revolutionising the means of production by individual companies to out-compete and out-trade their competitors. By overthrowing the monopolies of the European kingdoms, the road was cleared for many capitalist enterprises to flourish and expand their industries, competing with each other for market supremacy. However, as anyone who has played Monopoly would know, a stage is reached where the available wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer players. Eventually the game is brought to a conclusion, the competition is muscled out of the race.

Once again imperialism, through its natural development of monopolies, appears to present huge problems for the class system that it serves. Lenin outlines this contradiction in his analysis of contemporary imperialism: Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism. He states “it can be seen that, at a certain stage of its development, concentration itself, as it were, leads right to monopoly; for a score or so of giant enterprises can easily arrive at an agreement, while on the other hand, the difficulty of competition and the tendency towards monopoly arise from the very dimensions of the enterprises. This transformation of competition into monopoly is one of the most important – if not the most important phenomena – of modern capitalist economy.”

In order to define the specific nature of imperialism within capitalism, Lenin identifies five essential features that it will display:
1) The concentration of production and capital developed to such a high state that it create[s] monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life.
2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this ‘finance capital’, of the financial oligarchy.
3) The export of capital, which become[s] extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities.
4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.
5) The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers.

A quick glance at current world events is enough to show that all these features are now firmly established as the primary shaping factors of the world economy. The policies of the IMF and the World Bank show the extent to which the monopoly on finance capital directs economic development. The export of capital to third world nations has funded the development of sweat-shops, where the majority of the world’­s products can be produced at a bargain price though the super-exploitation of workers. Finally, as the recent developments in the gulf have shown, the US and allied oil monopolies have directed the territorial re-division of the world to suit their business interests.

Social change long overdue

The accuracy of Lenin’s analysis was not due to some super-human prophetic intuition. Rather the events in his time were already demonstrating these tendencies. For instance, as early as 1907, a huge struggle raged between the US owned Standard Oil Company and the Anglo-Dutch Shell trust for control of the Rumanian oil industry. The dispute was dubbed “the struggle for the division of the world.” It takes little to see the similarities with Bush’s ‘war for oil’.

Imperialism had already brought capitalism to its zenith by the turn of the century. Since this point, the contradictions between competition and monopoly have frequently boiled over, leading to cyclic periods of depression and world war. If Lenin could consider imperialism as a symbol of ‘capitalism in transition’ in 1917, it could well be said that this transition is long overdue.

The limits of empire

As the capitalists driving the US Empire usurp and eradicate their rivals in their quest for economic supremacy, their actions only increase the rate at which the foundations of capitalism are being eroded beneath them. The financial strain upon the Empire is evident in its inability to take full control of its territories. US forces are unable to build their own foundations of rule in Iraq. Like the Roman army, the Americans reside in heavily fortified enclaves, patrolling the cities and maintaining control though massive retaliation to acts of resistance. Due to the hatred that the Iraqis hold for their imperial rulers, no popular national figure could be found for the imperial control of Iraq. Therefore US administration has given the task to the ex US General and arms trader, Jay Garner, a modern day Viceroy. Such comparisons to the Empires of old further demonstrate the tenuous state of the Bourgeoisies’­ claims to power.

The conditions for change have never been greater

Just as social structures changed to facilitate imperialist expansion in feudal times, the same processes can be seen within capitalism. Under capitalism the growth of the working class has taken place within every country on the planet. The working class is now responsible for the production, maintenance and control of all the products and systems which fuel and integrate the global economy. As the bourgeois class had in feudal times, workers now form the progressive class with the knowledge and ability to run society. Imperialism under capitalism has brought these conditions about. The prolonged development of imperialism only increases the urgent need for the working class to overthrow the capitalist monopolies that are stifling the progression of humanity.

By Matt Wilson


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