Marxism and Imperialism

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Mon Nov 6 23:05:16 MST 2000

Anthony writes:

>I think that Lenin would agree with me on this, rather than with Phil. The
>first paragraph chapter VII of his famous pamphlet, "Imperialism, the
>highest stage of capitalism" reads:
>"We must now try to sum up, to draw together the threads of what has been
>said above on the subject of imperialism. Imperialism emerged as the
>development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of
>capitalism in general. But 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, when the
>features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and
>economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all spheres..."

Er, Anthony I would say this clearly backs up my point.  As lenin says:

"Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the
fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism only
became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its

Imperialism is, in other words (and as the title of the pamphlet put it),
the highest stage of *capitalism*.

If Lenin believed that imperialism was not historically specific to
capitalism, it is also rather odd he never mentions this in the entire
pamphlet, nor in the hundreds and hundreds of pages which make up the
'Notebooks on Imperialism'.

>However, whether or not Lenin or Phil agrees with my use, I think it is
>accurate and descriptive of all efforts throughout history of one state to
>control, dominate, or conquer another state or culture.

The problem with this is that it completely empties 'imperialism' of any
specific meaning.  On this basis, you may as well say that capitalism is
synonymous with *all class societies* because in all class societies the
mass of people are exploited through producing a surplus which is
appropriated by a ruling class.
Taking your argument logically we should not refer to feudalism or slavery,
or other modes of production.  They would all just be a 'kind' of
capitalism, like you refer to different 'kinds' of imperialism dating back
to whatever precapitalist society you date it back to.

But as Marxists we understand capitalism to be much more specific than
this.  Similarly imperialism is specific as well - the highest stage of

If none of the fundamental features of the Roman Empire are the same as the
fundamental features of the highest stage of capitalism, it is useless -
not to say confusing - to use the same term to describe both.  And I think
you'd have a hard time to show even the existence of capital - let alone
its export - at the time Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul!

This method, btw, is one that I'm constantly confronted with by bourgeois
academics.  In the global history course that I tutored in, we'd have texts
that referred to bridges and roads in the feudal period as 'capital'.  What
nonsense.  But I can see why bourgeois historiography, sociology etc does
this - it naturalises capitalism.  It makes it seem as if capital, in some
form or another, has always existed and thus always will/must exist.  Of
course, another reason they do it is that they just don't know what capital

Crucial to Marx's whole approach is specifying the conditions under which
means of production and so on *become capital*.  Similarly, it is necessary
to specify when plundering other countries *becomes imperialism*.
Otherwise all history and specificity is dissolved.  In fact, time itself
becomes meaningless.


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