Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism in the Twenty-first Century

Arindam Sen

One good effect of the evil wars launched by the evil empire on Afghanistan and Iraq is a rekindled interest in studies on imperialism, driven by a desire to understand why the world is hotting up, instead of cooling down, a decade after the end of the cold war. A refreshing addition to the burgeoning literature on the subject is the title under review, edited by a batch of young Marxist activists. Here we have a wealth of information and insights presented by eminent authors based in different schools of Marxism. Although many of these have been available on the net or in publications like the Socialist Register and Monthly Review, bringing them and a few others together in a handy compendium will benefit all who are interested in the subject. And the more so because the edition is very reasonably priced and neatly presented. However, a few of the printer’s errors -- e.g., omission of the word “from” before “each according to…”, which is a quotation from Marx, on page 14 -- are a bit too serious.

Thematically, as the editors point out in the Introduction, the essays “diverge and often contradict each other” [one another?] This is not bad. With different points of focus, between them the articles cover a wide spectrum of sub-themes and prompt us to think afresh, conduct informed debates, arrive at new realisations and explore new grounds in theory and practice. Isn’t this precisely what we need most today?


The volume contains a number of articles presenting a general exposition of imperialism today in terms of Marxist fundamentals. It aptly opens with JB Foster’s excellent essay Imperial America and War. The author first describes the dull-witted bellicosity of US empire builders under Bush junior, then recapitulates the classical Marxist-Leninist understanding of imperialism – formal and informal – and on that basis gives us a simple, broad framework for understanding imperialism and war today:

“Informal control” or the mechanism of global accumulation that systematically favours the core nations constitutes the normal means through which imperialist exploitation of the periphery operates. But this requires, on occasions, extraordinary means in order to bring recalcitrant states back into conformity with the market and with the international hierarchy of power with the United States at its apex.”

Doug Lorimer’s article builds a perspective on Imperialism at the Beginning of the 21st Century (as the title goes) on the firm foundation of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and Lenin’s elucidation of its imperialist stage. It is indeed so good to learn how Marx, back in 1865, wrote about the emergence of monopolies and “a new financial aristocracy, a new kind of parasite… an entire system of swindling and cheating with respect to the promotion of companies, issues of shares and share dealings”; Engels in 1894 observed  “the stock exchange… [becoming] the most pre-eminent representative of capitalist production as such”, and Lenin in 1916 described “finance capital” as “the typical ruler of the world”, as “a power that is peculiarly mobile and flexible, peculiarly intertwined at home and internationally, peculiarly devoid of individuality and divorced from the immediate processes of production, peculiarly easy to concentrate…”.

What a great theoretical inheritance we Marxists have with us, and how little we make use of it! The author draws liberally on this treasure and gives a brief account of the historical evolution of US imperialism, its so-called open door policy at the end of the nineteenth century, the post-war economic expansion (800% growth in FDI by the US between 1946 and 1966), initiatives like Marshall plan and the Vietnam war and so on.

Broadly to the same genre belongs Globalisation and the Emerging Global Politics by Prabhat Patnaik, one of India’s most well known authors on imperialism. He rightly highlights the distinction between capital-as-finance and capital-in-production and shows that it is the former, not the latter, that has become particularly mobile in the era of globalisation. But his formulation of a new, special category – “super-imperialism” – seems to be a bit too laboured.

Referring to Lenin’s rejection of the Kautskyist thesis of ultra-imperialism, Patnaik writes that the latter “can at best be a transition between two phases of inter-imperialist rivalry, a brief period of “truce” interposed between phases of conflict. There can however be an alternative trajectory away from “ultra-imperialism”, not towards inter-imperialist rivalry but towards super-imperialism. Once a critical minimum gap in terms of strength comes to exist between the leading power and the others, it is quite possible that it is the former that would grow relative to the others, making the gap even wider and thereby setting off a process towards super-imperialism. The other powers then would have to remain content with whatever “agreement” is drawn up by the leader (so that super-imperialism in a formal sense can be seen as a new phase of ultra-imperialism, though substantively it means domination by the leader). But unlike the trajectory visualised by Lenin, this trajectory may even represent a more stable equilibrium, not in the sense that it would actually last longer but in the sense that the immanent contradictions in the economics of super-imperialism may be more capable of being manipulated by the leader (as the US has demonstrated by capturing Iraqi oil and thereby strengthening the dollar)”.

Lenin rejected the concept of ultra-imperialism in absolute terms, denying its existence even for a brief period. Patnaik rehabilitates it, albeit conditionally: “at best [as] a brief period of truce (for Lenin, truce is very much a part of imperialism – not something without, not something calling for a new category). He then indirectly recognises this stage/phase by saying that there “can… be an alternative trajectory away from ‘ultra-imperialism’” and so on (there can be a trajectory only from a base that is actually existing). In fact Kautsky’s ‘ultra’ and Patnaik’s ‘super’ take two different trajectories but converge in a “stable equilibrium” among imperialist powers. Patnaik sees super-imperialism mainly as a post-Soviet development when inter-imperialist contradictions “are not very sharp”. Moreover “by acquiring control over the Iraqi oil reserves, the U.S. has ensured that whatever threat existed to the supremacy of the dollar and hence to the economic ability of the US to launch military aggression have now been removed.”

This is a status quoist portrayal of the economics and politics of imperialism, with the US ever on the ascendance. But the fact is, the Soviet collapse has served to remove an important unifying factor and thus intensify inter-imperialist contradictions, as evidenced in the split in NATO over Iraq war. And as regards the annexation of Iraq, to say the least it is still unclear whether the benefits would at all outweigh the difficulties. Nor does Patnaik seem to take cognisance of what IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff dubbed as “a tightening noose” around the US neck: the mounting external and internal debt resulting in a precarious dependence on foreign capital inflows.

Patnaik argues that thanks to greater global integration of finance capital, inter-imperialist rivalries are far more muted today’ than in Lenin’s time. This also happened to be Kautsky’s strongest argument in favour of his thesis. Lenin recognized the fact of increasing integration, but showed that “interlinked on a world-wide scale, capital is thriving on armaments and war.” He called attention to the armaments industries in Germany, Britain etc. as the most important site of integration and rivalry (for details, see my article in Liberation August 2003) and a look at today’s military industrial complexes will reveal that this is truer today than in Lenin’s time. In late 1999, in response to the alliance of British Aerospace with Lockheed Martin, French Aerospace-Matra merged with Daimler’s DASA forming Europe’s largest defence conglomerate. The same year France and Germany also established military cooperation with Russia. Next year the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS) was formed integrating DASA Matra and Spain’s Construccones Aeronautacias, SA. In fact the western defence and aerospace industry tends to be split into two groups: EADS dominated by France and Germany on the one hand and on the other, the US “big five” plus Britain’s BAES.  At the same time, there are business ties too. Thus EADS still cooperates with BAES in missile production and maintains ties with the US “big five”. Europe’s third largest defence contractor Thompson has in recent years executed several projects with US weapons producer Raytheon.

But is it not true that the Soviet collapse has left the US in a militarily unchallengeable position, a position which allows it to do almost anything it likes? Well, we should not forget that a paralyzing, equalizing power is conferred on countries like China, Russia, or even North Korea by comparatively small quantities of nuclear arsenals in their possession. Why on earth did the Goliath not dare to attack the last-named Lilliputian during the months-long confrontation over the latter’s nuclear programme, if not for its nuclear capability?

A metaphysical viewpoint sees the enemy’s strength only, not the weakness, and thus ends up in a defensive, apologetic approach in politics – in this case particularly after the demise of what many saw as the great Soviet savior. Dialectics demand that we should recognise the obvious, but remember that in the ultimate analysis imperialism remains a paper tiger.


So what lies ahead for the US empire? What are the main forces ranged against it? Several authors have shed light on this question from different angles.

In The US Imperialism and the Middle East, Samir Amin takes up a position diametrically opposed to Prabhat Patnik’s. He points out, “the US production system is far from being “the most efficient in the world”, but Washington maintain its superiority by “recourse to extra-economic means”. And there is “a serious potential conflictual relationship” among “the partners in the Triad”  [US, Europe and Japan, which constitute what Amin calls a “collective imperialism”-AS] because the US sustains itself on “the capital flow that feeds the parasitism of its economy and society. Europe and the rest of the world should put an end to this “transfusion and invest the surplus at home to revive their own economies.” However, the “liberal virus” deeply embedded in the ruling political class prevents Europe, Russia, China, etc. to exercise this option, so this requires “a rebalancing of the social relationship of the labouring classes.” Amin expects the American project of world domination to be “fatally confronted with … growing resistance of the nations of the old world”, forcing the US “to behave like a ‘Rogue State’ par excellence, … slipping on the fascist slope.” Therefore, “To constitute an anti-hegemonist  front has today the similar priority, as in the past it was to constitute an anti-Nazi alliance.” In this respect Amin attaches special importance “to the construction of a political and strategic alliance between Paris, Berlin and Moscow stretched to Beijing and Delhi if possible”. Thus he counts much on a (extended) European opposition to US domination.

Doug Lorimer in the aforementioned essay strongly differs from Samir Amin. He cites figures to show that “While US imperialism has suffered a relative decline in its position since the end of World War II, this has not brought any of its imperialist competitors closer to establishing its own predominance in the capitalist world.” Nor does the creation of the common currency zone covering much of Europe “fundamentally challenge the dominant position of US finance Capital in the world economy.” Mounting such a challenge “would require the transformation of the European Union into a federal multinational state on an equal military footing with the US, and a rapid process of international mergers among the largest European transnational corporations to attain a level of capital ownership and productive capacity equal to their US rivals”, which is not in the offing. “The present relationship of forces among the imperialist powers could only be fundamentally changed by a war between them in which the United States’ economic and military supremacy was shattered. But US military supremacy rules out” any such possibility.

In such circumstances, Lorimer sets store by the “growing social and political instability” within the US brought about by enhanced exploitation and oppression. He quotes Trotsky as saying, “the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring in the personal life of every worker, is the most revolutionary factor of the epoch in which we live.”

The primacy of internal class contradiction in this direct, immediate sense is not recognised by James Petras: “The empire [meaning the US – A SEN] will be defeated from without or it will not be defeated at all. Only with external defeats will internal dissent or opposition emerge, activating the exploited and the poor, particularly the black and Hispanic population.” This understanding naturally leads the author to locate the focal point of anti-imperialist struggle “in the colonised nations and client states”: Iraq, Palestine and the Latin American countries in particular and the third world in general. 

Each of these three different observations portrays different parts of the real and the possible.

Samir Amin does a fine job of exposing the soft underbelly of the US, but seems to overestimate the prospects of growing resistance on the part of European and other states in the visible future. His call for “an anti-hegemonist front” may be all right as a propaganda slogan, but do we have enough basis to believe this to be practicable in the short or medium run? 

Lorimer is right when he writes that unlike in the past, “the central dilemma facing the US rulers as they again launch a bid to create an “American century” is that they and their allies must wage war not only on recalcitrant forces in the Third World, but also against the living standards of their own working people,” thus restricting “their prospects for stifling a domestic radicalisation and political polarisation.” But as is typical of most analysts schooled in the Trotskyist tradition, he ignores the crucial question of political-organisational preparedness of the working class in bringing about such a domestic radicalisation and political polarisation.

Petras correctly captures the dialectical relation between the internal and external contradictions of empire building. He accords primacy to the latter mainly because the US “totally lacks a tradition of working class or left-wing anti-imperialism.” He explains: “Except for small minority, there was no sense among the anti-globalisation movement that the central issue was the US imperial state. Nor even at the height of the recent anti-war movement was there any understanding of the imperial-colonial nature of the war. This was evident in the subsequent virtual disappearance of the anti- war movement, once the war began…. The only long-standing internal opposition to US imperial policy occurred during the Vietnam War because of the prolonged length and effectiveness of the Indo-Chinese resistance movements, the defeat of the US and the large number of US military deaths and casualties.” (Emphasis in the original)

This is all right, but the New York professor seems to downplay the widely reported signs of a new activism and new leadership emerging from below in the American working class movement (see, for example, Liberation February 2003 and January 2004). These are small positives no doubt, but quite significant precisely because they are taking place in what Lenin would have called backward America (backward in terms of mass movements).

Anyway, read together the three articles provide us with a fairly comprehensive idea of the three major world contradictions of our day. Amin focuses the spotlight on the contradiction between the US empire builders and other strong states – essentially the intra-imperialist contradiction , Lorimer on the capital-labour contradiction  within imperialist states, Petras on the contradiction between imperialism and the Third World (   Latin America in particular) as reflected above all in the surging people’s movements in several countries.


It is the third which, we believe, constitutes the principal contradiction in the world today, the main propellant of our advancement towards a better world sans imperialism. So it is in the fitness of things that Latin America – the nearest hunting ground of the world’s most hated plunderers and murderers, the forward post of the international struggle against imperialism – figures quite prominently in the compendium. There are two articles on Latin America in general and another one on Argentina, authored by keen and close observers like James Petras, who have been visiting the country every year for several decades now, and Ana Cecilia Dimerstain who is a member of an Argentine Marxist Journal.

Petras in his essay – arguably the best in the batch – supplies us with an exhaustive treatment of both the US drive for recolonisation of Latin America and the resistance of popular masses. The recolonisation drive goes on through economic (e.g., the ALCA), political (e.g., the co-option of leaders like Lula) and military (as in Venezuela) means while the anti-imperialist struggles also take on various forms and features. Overall, “the peasants are at the center” of these movements, “not because the rural sector is larger in size – actually in relative and absolute terms it is declining – but because the militant rural leaders are far more independent than the state subsidised trade unions, and because they have closer links to their peasant base….” However, the urban unemployed, public employees, workers in industries targeted for privatisation and self-employed persons also constitute important forces in the struggle against imperialism.

Dimerstein in Beyond the Crisis: On the Nature of Political Change in Argentina recounts in some detail the genesis of the Argentine crisis at the turn of the century and the novel features of popular upheaval against the state. As we know, the uprising did not dislodge the old ruling class from state power. In the words of Dimerstein, “The politics of anti-politics did not contest the state power, whose recomposition was in the hands of the Peronist elites who were in the government.” Did this imply a failure of the movement? Not quite, she observes, because “ the recovery of collective action and the reinvention of political subjectivities constitute the fundamental basis for any process of significant political change, whose forms yet cannot be foreseen.”

In The Left in Latin America, Ronald H. Chilcote gives a broader overview of contemporary trends in left discourse in the continent. In the light of recent experiences of participatory democracy in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, he proposes a left research agenda that would be premised on class analysis and class struggle while paying due attention to new social movements, one that would help “mitigate the crisis of Marxism”.

Thus in this volume we have a very good discussion on Latin America, Argentina in particular, but we miss Venezuela badly. The collection was published well before the grand victory of President Chavez in the recent referendum, but the Venezuelan resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism is old and important enough to find a place   in a volume like this.


A number of articles provide holistic perspectives on imperialism and anti-imperialism today. William K Tabb in Dynamics of American Foreign Policy: Economic Aspects does not confine himself to this topic alone. He offers a thorough overall critique of globalisation, drawing extensively on Joseph Stiglitz and others. Peter McLare and Nathalia Jaramillo also cover a very broad canvass. The title, God’s Cowboy Warrior, makes an obvious reference to Bush hijo (a Spanish word for son or junior) who constantly harps on the fascistic rhetoric of Christian and family values while going ahead with a strategy of global conquest. As for a counter strategy, the authors “reject the bourgeois anticapitalism that critiques civil society, but ultimately endorses the proposition that market capitalism is the best solution” as well as “localist anticapitalism” and the concept of radical democracy in which decentralization and the deterritorialised multitude replace the anti-state approach of the proletariat of classical Marxism.” They are for “a socialist anti-capitalist approach that is non-sectaran”, where “the working class is still the most important agent of social transformation.” But at the same time they do not hesitate to ask, “how is it that Bush can command such respect among everyday, working class Americans?” They find the answer in a number of psychological and ideological factors and this part of the story makes really intereting reading. They conclude:

“As long as exploitation remains gratifying and continues to accumulate value, there is little motivation for US citizens to create a world outside of capital’s value form.

“That is why any revolutionary struggle must be dedicated to educating the emotions as much as the intellect…It must take place not only on the picket line or the protest march, but in the schools, in places of worship, libraries, shop floors, and corporate offices – in every venue where people come together to learn, to labour, and to love.”

Partly in a similar vein, Werner Bonefeld in Anti-Globalisation versus Anti-capitalism repudiates the bourgeois half-critiques of capitalism such as “Nazism’s anti-capitalist capitalism.” The editors in their introduction argue that in this category “we can include by logical extension, the anti-Islamism so popular globally and of Hindu nationalism”. Unfortunately, they do not elaborate. 


For reasons best known to them, the editors have chosen to name the collection “Politics of Imperialism…”. But all the writers deal both with economics and politics (including war), as Marxists would normally do. Certainly there is “an essential oneness”, as Magdoff puts it, to the economic, political and military aspects of imperialism, with the economic – we must say this in spite of loud charges of determinism – as the ultimately decisive one. And as we approach the fifth year of the twenty-first century, the economic health of imperialist world system looks far from sound. Currently the US economy, and under its impact a large part of the world capitalist economy, is experiencing rapid growth which is based on the quick sand of cheap dollar credit. But this practice of stimulating the US economy by abnormally low interest rates and record budget deficit spending (which is financed by government bonds) cannot go on for ever. Many US economists fear the unavoidable “correction” would take place not long after the November election, regardless of who becomes president. When the US interest rates are finally forced higher, a chain reaction in the form of a spreading depression is very likely to hit the global economy. And mind it, this is not a prediction by Marxist crisis theorists, but a prognosis made by hardcore bourgeois experts.

But to return to the volume under review. In the last “chapter” (it is not clear why the articles are thus referred in the Introduction; do the editors wish to present the essays as parts of a single work?) titled Analysing Imperialism in the Age of Globalisation, co-editor Pratyush Chandra surveys the current theoretical debates on imperialism, war and related topics in the light of Lenin’s Imperialism. The piece reads more like a good study note, a diligently prepared collection of valuable materials, than a completed article; let us look forward to even better work, even more penetrating perspectives on imperialism and other burning themes of the day.

One last word. A collection like this can never be exhaustive, but sometimes some omissions can be a bit painful. The volume contains articles focusing on particular regions (such as the Middle East) and countries, but not one on the country from where it is published (the essays by Patnaik and Chandra do not deal with the Indian situation). Is India insulated from imperialist operations? Do not the Indian communists have an anti-imperialist tradition and strategy?