Imperialism with a Human Face?

— Paul Le Blanc

A REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALIST analysis of imperialism today begins with the insights of Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, which are remarkably fresh and relevant despite the passage of decades. Modern imperialism involves the expansion of capitalist enterprise beyond state boundaries. Luxemburg described it this way:

“Capitalist desire for imperialist expansion, as the expression of its highest maturity in the last period of its life, has the economic tendency to change the whole world into capitalistically producing nations, to sweep away all superannuated, precapitalistic methods of production and society, to subjugate all the riches of the earth and all means of production to capital, to turn the laboring masses of the peoples of all zones into wage slaves.

“In Africa and in Asia, from the most northern regions to the southernmost point of South America and in the South Seas, the remnants of old communistic social groups, of feudal society, of patriarchal systems and of ancient handicraft production are destroyed and stamped out by capitalism. Whole peoples are destroyed, ancient civilizations are levelled to the ground, and in their place profiteering in its most modern forms is being established.”

She saw the “progressive” impact of capitalist civilization upon the “backward” peoples as a fraud:

“To capitalist economists and politicians railroads, matches, sewerage systems and warehouses are progress and culture. Of themselves such works, grafted upon primitive conditions, are neither culture nor progress, for they are too dearly paid for with the sudden economic and cultural ruin of the peoples who must drink down the bitter cup of misery and horror of two social orders, of traditional agricultural landlordism, [and] of supermodern, superrefined capitalist exploitation, at one and the same time.”

Lenin’s Understanding

Lenin’s flexible understanding of imperialism’s dynamics emphasized that under capitalist development “free competition gives way to the concentration of production, which in turn, at a certain stage of development, leads to monopoly.” He argued that capitalism has consequently “been transformed into imperialism” since the opening of the 20th century.

In this period, “although commodity production still `reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the `geniuses’ of financial manipulation.” Lenin perceived that “the 20th century marks the turning-point from the old capitalism to the new, from the domination of capital in general to the domination of finance capital.”

Lenin defined finance capital as “the concentration of production; the monopolies arising therefrom; the merging or coalescence of the banks with industry.” He identified this period as one in which “a monopoly ... . inevitably penetrates into every sphere of public life, regardless of the form of government and all other `details’”—with a tendency by the state to identify the needs of the massive firms with the national interest.

It is also a period in which “the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production...and (where) the rentier who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital is separated from the entrepreneur and all who are directly concerned in the management of capital.”

Under the old capitalism the export of goods was typical, while under the new capitalism the more important dynamic is the export of capital. The logic of the accumulation process leads Lenin to conclude that:

“[S]urplus capital will be utilized not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline of profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap.”

The new capitalism continued to intensify “the anarchy inherent in capitalist production as a whole,” certainly for workers affected by capital flight to far-off lands. For Lenin, however, imperialism involved not simply the quest for profits in formally colonized areas (such as the British Empire), but also the drive to invest in independent countries—sometimes “semi-colonies” for all practical purposes but sometimes enjoying even greater autonomy than that—creating “diverse forms of dependent countries which, politically, are formally independent but, in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence.”

Lenin stressed that expanding capital sought entry into “not only agrarian territories, but even the most highly industrialized regions...because (1) the fact that the world is already partitioned obliges those contemplating a redivision to reach out for every kind of territory, and (2) an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony.”

Today’s Chain of Catastrophes

Global restructuring of the capitalist economy, the “collapse of Communism” and the “new world order” have again brought these tendencies to the forefront.

The result of all this has been what Luxemburg called “the chain of catastrophes” oppressing working people throughout the world. The new anthology edited by Kevin Danaher, 50 Years is Enough: The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, innumerable articles in Monthly Review, analyses by Ernest Mandel and others like him, all have documented the acceleration of this process in recent decades.

Further corroboration can be found in a number of non-Marxist works—such as Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century or Kevin Phillips’ Boiling Point.

In large measure resulting from this accelerated development has been the fragmentation and corrosion of independent political movements of the working class on a world scale, and the enhancement of the global power of capitalism.

Consequently, the refusal to adapt to imperialism strikes many (including a great number of formerly revolutionary-minded theorists and activists) as “irrelevant” or “sectarian.”

Marx and Engels shrewdly noted long ago: The legislative assemblies of the modern state are under the sway of the capitalists, who also utilize the executive branch of the state as their own coordinating committee. Yet many former revolutionaries seem to look with new eyes at this capitalist tool.

It is not practical to ask whether the Left should “tolerate” military interventions for the purpose of maintaining global law and order. The weak and disorganized Left has no power to pose a practical revolutionary or independent working-class alternative at the present time. Yet we can withhold our support, explaining—to the best of our abilities, and to whomever will listen—the unvarnished truth about what is happening, about the meaning of capitalist “law and order,” and about what a revolutionary working-class alternative would be.

Those who advocate “humanitarian” military interventions, through the U.S. government or through the collection of capitalist governments gathered in the United Nations, are placing their hopes in (and urging the working-class majority to support) the repressive power of the capitalist state.

Indeed there is need for broad educational work and political activities to build mass opposition to militarism, interventionism, imperialism—and to ideological influences (racism, ethnocentrism, super-“patriotism,” but also the liberal myth of a class-neutral state) that pull so many people into the undertow of support for imperialist policies.

More than this, we must focus on rebuilding an independent workers’ movement: socially conscious, democratic trade unions and a strong mass labor party in our own country, both developing an independent foreign policy of the working class, both having an uncompromisingly working class orientation consistent with the insights of Luxemburg and Lenin, both seeking to put political and economic power into the hands of the working-class majority.

Similar formations are needed in all countries, and we need to build an international organization that embraces such revolutionary working-class movements. The “nuts and bolts” of these complex but essential tasks—easier said than done!—could provide fruitful topics for future symposia in Against the Current.


Kevin Danaher, ed., The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (1994)

Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the 21st Century (1993)

V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916)

Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy (1915)

Harry Magdoff, What is the Meaning of Capitalism? Monthly Review, September 1993

Ernest Mandel et al, Socialism or Barbarism on the Eve of the 21st Century (1992)

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Kevin Phillips, Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity (1993)

Paul Sweezy, The Triumph of Financial Capital, Monthly Review, June 1994

November/December 1995