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Marxist Theories of Imperialism

by Murray Noonan on September 25, 2017

My latest book Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A History critically analyses the theorising of imperialism over the course of the twentieth century and up to the present. Analysis of Marxist engagement with imperialism during this period reveals three distinct phases of theorising. The writers in the first phase I call the ‘pioneers of imperialism theory’. They fall into two groups, namely ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’. Along with Rudolf Hilferding and Karl Kautsky, John Hobson was firmly in the camp of the ‘reformists’. Overall, they did not see imperialism as some inevitable outgrowth of capitalist development, although it should also be borne in mind that John Hobson is the one exception among the ‘pioneers’ in that he was a liberal, not a Marxist. The second group of writers, the ‘revolutionaries’ comprise Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin and V.I. Lenin. They considered imperialism to be an unavoidable product of a particular stage of capitalism that was immune to reform. The first phase of writing from the ‘pioneers’ set the foundations for later theorising and became the benchmark by which later theorists judged their own and other’s writings. This first phase of theorising covers the period 1902 to 1917, a period that witnessed the cataclysm that was the First World War and the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia.

The second phase of theorising, I argue, started in 1942 with the publication of Paul Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development. It was difficult to pinpoint when this phase of theorising ended because some of the writers in this phase – a cohort I designated as the neo-Marxists – continue to produce journal articles and books. It seemed to me though that the high water mark of the work on imperialism by the neo-Marxists occurred in the late 1960s, continued through the 1970s and tended to decline by the early 1980s.

The argument is made that, originating with Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development, neo-Marxist understandings of imperialism began with an acceptance of the foundational writing of the ‘pioneers’ and particularly Lenin’s insights on imperialism. Over time, however, a number of neo-Marxist writers moved away from explicit endorsement of Lenin’s theorisation of imperialism and the word itself almost disappears from the lexicon of two of the writers. In place of imperialism, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy adopted the term Monopoly Capital.  For others, such as Ander Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, imperialism and imperialism theory became noticeably less prominent in their later works. Samir Amin has been more consistent in his use of the term and even in his more recent books he continues to acknowledge his debt to Lenin’s insights on imperialism. Nonetheless, there is a demonstrable decline in interest in defining and engaging with the concept of imperialism by the neo-Marxists, with imperialism seen to be either a stage of capitalist development, as monopoly capitalism itself or shorthand for Third World dependency and/or underdevelopment.

Phase three of the theorising of imperialism by Marxists kicked in with the publication of Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s Empire in 2000. Empire had a cathartic effect on contemporary Marxist scholarship in general and imperialism theory in particular. The book had more than a hint of the millennial about it, with the authors making grand claims about fundamental changes to capitalism and especially the system of states and state sovereignty. Hardt and Negri believed that so much had changed, due in large part to globalisation and the demise of ‘actually existing socialism’, that it was possible to speak of a de-centred, de-territorialised power called ‘Empire’. The ‘Empire’ that Hardt and Negri claim has come into existence is not specific to one nation-state. Whilst predicated on US military might and superpower status, ‘Empire’ transcends the system of states and previous forms of empire. Also transcended are previous forms of capitalism and its attendant appurtenances such as imperialism.

Globalisation and its relationship to capitalism and imperialism and how to theorise it became one of the central concerns of the ‘globalisation-era’ Marxists. This cohort consists of Hardt and Negri, Humphrey McQueen, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, and Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin. I also claim that two recent writers can also be placed within this group. They are Tobias ten-Brink in his Global Political Economy and the Modern State System and John Smith in his Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century that both reward close attention.

Hardt’s and Negri’s ambitious book confronted some cherished Marxist concepts and positions, compelling the other ‘globalisation-era’ Marxists to re-visit and critically reflect on the classical Marxist theories. Three themes link the work of Hardt and Negri and other ‘globalisation-era’ Marxists: globalisation; the state; and the system of states and empire/imperialism.

Engagement with these themes by the globalisation era Marxists re-kindled an interest in imperialism theory. Rising to the challenges of globalisation, a resurgent U.S. once again projecting military force in various parts of the globe, neoliberalism and financial vicissitudes, these writers have responded by taking a fresh and often critical look at what the classical Marxist theorists had to say about capitalist imperialism. It is noteworthy that it was the classical Marxist works that have been subjected to scrutiny. For the most part (with the slight exception of Petras and Veltmeyer, who took as one of the fundamentals of imperialism the neo-Marxist trope of the impoverishment of the Third World/periphery), globalisation-era Marxists have bypassed the neo-Marxist musings on the subject.

So, what is imperialism? The understanding of imperialism used in my book is based on the one offered up by David Harvey. Namely it is a dialectical relationship between capitalist and territorial logics of power. That is, capitalist imperialism is a product of the relationship between the global capitalist accumulation process and geopolitics, which has to be kept at the forefront of our thinking about the contemporary era as much as the recent history of imperialism.

Murray Noonan
Murray Noonan’s research interests include Marxist political economy, state theory, International Relations theory and theories of imperialism. He currently teaches (Tutors) in two history subjects at Deakin University, namely ‘The Holocaust’ and ‘Sport in History’. He has held Research Fellow positions at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University. He is an Associate Member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group, Deakin University:

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