What is imperialism? An introduction

Sep 20, 2021

Comparison of Africa in the years 1880 and 1913 during the "Scramble for Africa." Photo: Wikicommons.

Editor’s note: A Spanish translation of this article is available here.

In the suffering of the Global South, the brutality of capitalism lies bare. In a footnote toward the end of Capital, Marx wrote that the colonized subject reveals “what the bourgeois makes of itself and of the labourer, wherever it can, without restraint, model the world after its own image” [1]. The forms of primary accumulation he articulates there were in their most naked form in the colonies. Contrary to liberal and academic misreadings, Marx paid great attention to the relationship between colonialism and capitalism. Marx came to argue that colonialism was the backbone of capitalism, and that anti-colonial movements could even be the key to global capitalism’s overthrow. This is why anti-colonial struggles have long been guided to victory by Marxist theory.

As proletarians living within the imperial core, it is our task to unite with our class across nations. When capital moves across borders, so must proletarian solidarity. As revolutionaries in the United States, we must understand and fight against the global system of imperialism from within, for “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations” [2].

Marx on colonialism and anti-colonial struggles

Marx analyzed capitalism in Britain for his major work because data on the country’s industrial system was rich and accessible, and because it was where capitalism was most highly developed at the time. However, Marx was clear that British capitalism was not confined to Britain, and that the object of study was Britain as a capitalist and colonizing power. British industrial capitalism was advanced because of its stature as a colonial power.

Marx’s critique of political economy showed how the prevailing ideas of colonialism were reactionary and not in the interests of British workers. For example, he noted how British colonies like Ireland could be utilized for excess labor-power and how wage laborers can’t be free while slavery exists. Most famously, he wrote that British capital was accumulated through “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder,” and more specifically through national and international debts, “the discovery of gold and silver… the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population,” and “the conquest and looting of the East Indies” [3].

The study that examines the political economy of Britain ends with a chapter on colonialism because Marx knew that, while capital’s contradictions couldn’t be solved without revolution, they could be pushed back and displaced through intensified colonial expansion. In fact, Marx’s theory of value was a global theory of value, as value necessarily expands and requires capitalist powers to engage in colonial and, later, imperialist practices [4]. Colonialism is explicitly mentioned, for example, as a process that can counter the tendency for the rate of profit to fall [5].

Moreover, Marx even acknowledged that uprisings in the colonized world could spark workers’ uprisings in the colonial motherland. During the Taiping Rebellion in China–which Marx supported wholeheartedly–he wrote:

“It may seem a very strange, and very paradoxical assertion that the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire” [6].

Even during Marx’s time, what we today call the Global South–including Africa, Asia, and Latin America–were, along with oppressed nations in the North, exploited for the enrichment of the colonizing capitalist states.

From colonialism to imperialism

Yet it wasn’t until after Marx died that the shift from colonialism to imperialism began. Marx died in 1883, just before the 1884 Conference of Berlin rapidly accelerated the transition to a global imperialist order. Less than 20 years later, the imperialist powers had terrorized, plundered, and looted almost all of Africa, stripping away long histories of self-governance.

For a definition of imperialism, we have to turn to Lenin, who can help us understand what imperialism really is, and why it isn’t an adjective that describes particular policies of certain administrations, but instead refers to a particular stage of capitalist development. Lenin distinguishes imperialism from colonialism in the following manner:

The characteristic feature of the period under review is the final partition of the globe—final, not in the sense that a repartition is impossible; on the contrary, repartitions are possible and inevitable—but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories of our planet. For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one “owner” to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an “owner” [7].

Imperialism began when the colonizing powers had already divided the world between themselves. The only way to expand from that point on was to re-divide the colonial territories, which inevitably meant war. Such redivisions were at the roots of the First and Second World Wars.

Imperialism: Capitalist wars and revolutionary solutions

“Imperialism,” Lenin wrote, “is the highest stage in the development of capitalism” [8]. This means there is no separating imperialism from capitalism: one is a stage within the other.

Capitalism has, since its birth, used legal and extralegal violence to accumulate wealth in the hands of the capitalist class through a process called primary accumulation. Within England, one of capitalism’s first acts was expropriating peasants from their land, forcibly converting them into wage laborers and transforming their means of subsistence into commodities they had to purchase. Such dispossession was carried out by state and individual terrorism. The colonized world suffered a similar yet sharper fate, as we saw Marx describe above.

Writing during the beginning of World War I, Lenin wrote that “capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites” [9]. “Economically,” he writes, “the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly” [10]. Gone were the (brief) days when small businesses competed with each other in limited markets. Instead, capital was centralized in fewer and fewer hands. “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries,” Lenin wrote [11]. Their “booty” accrues to a handful of imperialist powers “who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty” [12].

Some thought that the tendency toward monopoly would result in one single company for every industry, which would represent a limit to capitalism within capitalism. Yet during economic crises and due to state intervention, such monopolies never cohered. Today, major corporations and financial institutions, largely located in the Global North, have conglomerated and vertically integrated to the extent that a handful of monopolies dominate the entire international economy. To be sure, they’re often separate entities, but they’re united by finance and the state. Lenin referred to the then-new phenomenon of the merging of industrial and banking capital as “finance capital,” a form of capitalism that is still dominant today.

Because of this drive toward monopoly, capitalism cannot be reformed into a peaceful regime. Capitalism can never become anti-imperialist, non-imperialist, or, to use the phrase of Lenin’s target, Karl Kautsky, “ultra” or “super-imperialist.” Kautsky believed that the territorial expansion of capitalism had reached its limits and that the only solution was for the powerful nations to form a bloc and establish an equilibrium. Lenin said this state was merely a “truce” between wars.

Governments of imperialist countries act in the interests of these monopolies, using their armies and militaries to pursue their objectives. The U.S. military is an extension of capital’s drive to constantly conquer new markets and resources, even when it creates them through destruction. It goes to war to compete with other imperialist rivals for markets and resources, to keep rising capitalist powers in their place, to oppress independent and socialist nations, to find new markets, resources, and springs of profit, and to mitigate against worker rebellions at home.

When Israel bombs Palestine or the U.S. launches airstrikes against Syria, sanctions Venezuela, or blockades Cuba, these are not individual policy decisions, nor are they the result of any single politician’s mindset. These are economically necessary and structural features of capitalism that cannot be reformed away. To be sure, there is a great deal of debate within the U.S. political and military establishments over what particular policies to pursue, means to deploy, and objectives to attain at particular junctures. Yet, the consensus remains: the U.S. won’t accept any challenge to its imperialist dominance.

The only solution is the overthrow of capitalist imperialism, and the building of socialism. By its very definition, imperialism needs to dominate every market, raw material, natural resource, and worker on the planet. The tactics it deploys to do so are varied, ranging from sanctions and blockades to war threats, bombing campaigns, and all-out regime-change operations. The U.S. remains the primary imperialist power, although its dominance is increasingly contested by other countries that are merely trying to rise within the capitalist order. The People’s Republic of China, however, constitutes a serious threat to imperialism insofar as it works to provide an alternative to U.S. domination for underdeveloped countries.

Today as in Lenin’s time, the global antagonism between imperialist and oppressed nations reverberates and structures our world and our struggles [13].

Conclusion: Proletarian internationalism

In reality, it is the workers and oppressed who are powerful. We are the ones who will take power out of the hands of monopolies and turn it over to the toiling masses through revolutionary struggles.

Here in the United States, it is the duty of all progressive and revolutionary people to strike imperialism at its heart. Ending imperialism in the U.S. will mean liberation not only for us, but also for oppressed peoples around the world, for they would be able to exercise their right to self-determination without interference. The Cuban people could build socialism without blockades from the US; Korea could reunite once again without threat of U.S. military intervention; Palestine would be free from U.S.-Israeli occupation.

Yet our class is constantly bombarded with imperialist propaganda that aims to divide us against our allies abroad and to unite us with our enemies at home. “We’re all Americans,” they tell us, slyly ignoring the class, national, and other divisions in the imperialist heartland. Imperialist propaganda takes diverse forms, and many of them liberal and even “progressive.” Wars are never waged in the name of resources or profit, but rather in the name of “human rights,” “democracy,” and even the “protection of minorities” [14]. For each form of propaganda, we have to respond clearly and resolutely: NO to U.S. imperialism! U.S. troops out of everywhere! These demands are consistent regardless of our evaluation of the nation or government under attack.

We have to show that workers in the United States have nothing to gain through U.S. imperialism, whether it pursues its objectives through military war or economic sanctions. We have to show our class that, not only do we have nothing to gain, but we suffer continual losses from imperialism–we lose our lives, our jobs, our communities, and more. By showing these truths to workers, we help unite and raise the consciousness of our class, which are indispensable to building a socialist revolution here in the “belly of the beast.”

While the global imperialist system has changed quite drastically since Lenin’s time, the primary political directive remains the same: Fighting to end imperialist war is necessary, but it is part of the struggle for the real solution: to take power out of the hands of the banks, financial oligarchies, landlords, and militarists, and put it in the hands of the many. We can’t do that if our class can be won back over to the side of our enemies.


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 704f1.
[2] V.I. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” in Lenin Selected Writings, ed. V. Prashad (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 1916/2018), 85.
[3] Karl Marx, Capital, 668, 703.
[4] See Radhika Desai, “Marx’s Critical Political Economy, ‘Marxist Economics’ and Actually Occurring Revolutions against Capitalism,” Third World Quarterly 41, no. 8 (2020): 1353-1370.
[5] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 3): The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, trans. D. Fernbach (New York: Penguin Books, 1884/1981), 345.
[6] Karl Marx, “Revolution in China and Europe,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Vol. 12): Marx and Engels, 1853-54 (London: Lawrence & Wisehart, 1853/1979), 93.
[7] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1920/1965), 9.
[8] Ibid., 79. 
[9] V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” in Imperialism in the 21st Century: Updating Lenin’s Theory a Century Later, ed. B. Becker (San Francisco: Liberation Media, 1917/2015), 163.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 88-89.
[12] Ibid., 89.
[13] For more on the changes in the imperialist order since Lenin’s time, see Brian Becker, “From Inter-Imperialist War to Global Class War: Understanding Distinct Stages of Imperialism,” Liberation School, 20 July 2018. Available here.
[14] See Brian Becker, “Libya and the United Front,” Liberation School, 29 March 2011. Available here.

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