From territorial to non territorial capitalist imperialism: The necessity of a revaluation of Marxist theories of imperialism

From territorial to non territorial capitalist imperialism:

The necessity of a revaluation of Marxist theories of imperialism.[1]


Spyros Sakellaropoulos

Department of Social Policy, Panteion University Athens

Panagiotis Sotiris

Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean, Mytilene






1. Introduction


During the 1990’s ‘globalization’ emerged as the most convenient term to describe world affairs. However, during the current decade imperialism has made an impressive come-back, both in political and theoretical debates. This had to do with the political conjuncture and the emergence of an aggressive American (or under American leadership) military interventionism, beginning with the war in Afghanistan, the brutal occupation of Iraq, the plans for a military strike against Iran. Not only was this policy attacked by the Left as being imperialist, but also right wing theorists and political commentators started to openly talk about the necessity of liberal imperialism to deal with terrorism and rogue states (Cooper 2002; Wolf 2001) and how urgent it was for the US to act as a benevolent imperial Hegemon (Kagan 1998; Boot 2001; Donnelly 2002) to safeguard Western values and liberties. There has also been a return of the notion of imperialism in left-wing theoretical debate. Despite the fact that during most of the 1980s and 1990s there had been no substantial theoretical debate on the notion of imperialism, the current debate on the “New Imperialism” has led to many important contributions.

This current return of the notion of imperialism in the political and theoretical debate, however welcome it may be, has the problem of reproducing old problems and controversies, at the same time leaving important questions open. And the same goes for Marxist or Marxist – oriented theories of the “New Imperialism. The same old problems of the identification of imperialism and territorial expansion, of explaining international rivalries on the basis of a geopolitics of resources and scarcity and of defining hierarchies in the international system in terms of Empire-building, occur again. And at the same time even those theorists that diverge from this pattern tend to also reproduce old problems, especially in the form of the recurrence of theories of super-imperialism. That is why a serious theoretical discussion of the notion of imperialism is more than necessary.

In our opinion any possible theory of imperialism must be able to answer a series of important questions:

a) The question of territorial expansion. Modern-era imperialism started as territorial expansion, especially colonial expansion, and it was on this basis that the very term ‘imperialism’ was coined. On the other hand, post-WWII developments witnessed the end of colonialism and the evolution of a system of territorial sovereign states as the basis of imperialism.

b) The question of the character of imperialist expansion. Is it a form of defense against the tendency of capitalism to stagnation and crisis due to underconsumption and lack of areas suitable for capital accumulation? Or, on the contrary, it is a form of aggressive expansion of capital accumulation, of capitalist relations of production, an evidence of strength and not weakness?

c) The question of inter-imperialist rivalry: What is dominant the tendency to conflict and rivalry or the tendency to peaceful competition and cooperation?

d) The question of hierarchy in the imperialist chain: Dominance or Hegemony?

e) The question of the relation of the economical and the political level in the theory of imperialism. This is also interwoven with questions referring to the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, especially the question of the role of trade and / or territorial expansion in pre-capitalist social formations.

 But before turning our attention to theories of the ‘New Imperialism’ it is necessary to return to classical theories of imperialism and especially Lenin's in order to asses their legacy.



2. Lenin’s theory of imperialism and its relevance


When dealing with the theory of imperialism one cannot avoid talking about Lenin’s theoretical intervention. In our eyes there are two possible readings of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. One is to consider it as a Marxist interpretation of classical theories of colonial empire-building, either those that related imperialism to an overabundance of capital in tandem with growing social instability, or those that laid more emphasis on imperialism as an expression of certain fractions of the ruling block that had to gain from overseas expansion and military build up (Hobson 1902).  According to such a view Lenin presents a theory of irremediable capitalist stagnation and overproduction which can only be temporarily dealt with by means of colonization, the latter providing not only the necessary outlet for idle capital but also a means of social pacification, since it makes possible the creation of a labor aristocracy.

There is no doubt that there are certain theoretical and analytical problems in Lenin's writings on Imperialism that can (mis)lead to such a reading:

a) Lenin’s endorsement, of Bukharin’s book on world capitalism, which tended to present world capitalism as an integral global system. (Lenin 1917).  In our opinion Bukharin, although not a theorist of a global unified capitalist system in the strict sense, tends more to present an image of a global capitalism in which the antagonistic relations are not only between states or power blocks but also between big capitalist trusts, thus underestimating the importance of the role of states in international relations and conflicts.

b) His emphasis on the formation of monopolies as a distinctive feature of the imperialist stage, tending sometimes to an underestimation of the importance of competition between capitals.

c) His tendency towards an instrumentalist theory of the state as a tool in the hands of monopoly capital and big trusts.

d) His definition as imperialism (and monopoly capital) as inherently parasitic and crisis-prone.

e) His agreement with Hilferding’s original position that the export of capital towards the periphery was the result of economic stagnation in the imperialist centre.

f)  His opinion that imperialism created the condition for bribing the sections of the working-class in order to form a labour aristocracy, which was a rather simplistic and misguiding description of the ways the labour movement had been able to secure concessions from the bourgeoisie.

A superficial reading of Lenin’s pamphlet in imperialism (Lenin 1970) certainly provides a basis for such an interpretation. But we believe that a second reading is possible, which can open a different way of theorizing not only colonialism, but also the way by which the emergence of the capitalist mode of production radically transformed the shape of the globe. According to our reading Lenin’s theory of imperialism revolutionizes the theory of the international system, and gives imperialism a wholly different meaning than simple empire building. Especially important in this sense are Lenin’s efforts to think of the international system as a complex unity of economic, social and political contradictions, as a hierarchy of national social formations, engaged non only in economic competition, but also in political and military antagonism, generally what is known as the theory of the imperialist chain and its weakest link. Lenin’s emphasis on uneven development as a characteristic of modern imperialism (Lenin 1915: 342), his insistence on competition, his description of the antagonisms in the world scene in the introductory speech at the Second Congress of the Communist International (Lenin 1920a), are some examples. This second tendency was also based on Lenin’s reformulation of the notion of revolutionary crisis as the condensation of contradictions in all instances of the social whole, a condensation that is always national-specific and original (Lenin 1917a; Lenin 1920)[2].

From this point of view the most important point in Lenin’s approach is that social relations take analytical priority over inter-state relations. States’ behaviour on the international plane is conditioned by their social structure and the balance of power in the class struggle. Imperialism is not the outcome of a simple drive towards territorial expansion, but the result of a specific stage in the development of capitalist accumulation (relative surplus value as the predominant form of surplus extraction, real subsumption of labour to capital, concentration and centralization of capital) and of the contradictions that arise out of its class antagonistic nature. The internationalization of capital is not an expression of capitalist stagnation, but an aggressive tendency that results on the expanded reproduction of capitalism, the consolidation of the ruling block, and the hegemony of capitalism against non-capitalist modes of production.

This emphasis on class relations and antagonisms also marks a sharp difference between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and proponents of American expansionism in the form ‘economic imperialism’ as a solution for the over-abundance of capital, such as Charles Conant (1898). Lenin’s intervention goes far beyond Conant’s emphasis on exports of these idle capitals (as opposed to the social and political difficulty of wealth redistribution and the unavailability of domestic productive outlets). The fundamental issue for Lenin was not capital exports as such, but capital exports as part of a broader tendency: the expansion of capitalist social relations on a global scale, the political and military conflicts that followed this expansion — as an expression of the inherently violent character of this process — and the resulting challenges for the revolutionary movement.

Uneven development is the necessary outcome of the complex history of the emergence and domination of capitalism in different parts of the world, resulting to the creation of antagonistic total social capitals. Competition between capitals in the international plane is necessarily state-mediated, the state’s role being to guarantee the interest of the capitalists as a whole — and this leads to inter-imperialist rivalry and war[3]. For all these reasons we claim that first of all Imperialism is a political strategy. In this sense, after Lenin’s theoretical intervention[4] ‘imperialism’ undergoes a profound semantical change: It loses whatever references it kept to empire-building and becomes something different, i.e. the specifically capitalist tendency to the internationalization of capital, the expansion of capitalist productive relations all over the globe and the political (and military) strategies (and antagonisms) that make possible the enlarged reproduction of these tendencies.

It is also worth noting that Lenin’s gradual distancing from some of the more economistic aspects his 1916 pamphlet was not the only fertile theoretical turn. Bukharin also distanced from his original position in his 1924 polemic against Luxembourg’s Anticritique (Bucharin 1972)[5], in which he defended Marx’s schemata concerning the possibility of reproduction without ‘third persons’ or ‘non-capitalist’ periphery and provided a very interesting theory of capital exports. According to Bukharin the driving force behind capital exports is not the problem of realization (the basis of under-consumption theories) but the search for higher profit rates and this can explain why imperialist policies are not directed solely against the non - capitalist periphery but also against the capitalist centre and he cites the French occupation of Ruhr as an example.

In sum we think that the importance of Lenin’s theoretical contribution lies mainly in the following points.

a) Lenin revolutionized the theorization of the international system by giving internal class relations and contradictions analytical priority over interstate relations. Contrary to most theories of international relations, both realist and ‘idealist’, which have their origins in classical political philosophy and 19th century diplomatic history and tend to view states as subjects that act out of their own will in the international scene, Lenin insisted that the policies of states are governed by their internal class balance of forces, the degree of capitalist development and the particular class strategies that arise.

b) Lenin’s emphasis on the export of capital as the predominant form of the internationalization of capital, and on the internationalization of capital as the material basis of imperialism also had revolutionizing effects. Contrary to the traditional notion of international power politics as expressions of national interests, Lenin insisted on the internationalization of capital as a contradictory expansion of capitalist social relations. International conflicts are not about national interests, but must be viewed as class antagonisms mediated by the national states as expressions of the long-term capitalist interest in each social formation.

c) Lenin’s emphasis on the internationalization of capital through capital exports dealt a decisive blow to the notion of imperialism as territorial expansion. Despite Lenin’s many references to the “division of the world among the Great Powers”, the core of his argument is that the expansion of capital no longer requires territorial annexation or formal empire, but the articulation of dynamic capital accumulation and political power.

d) Lenin’s emphasis on the role of states in imperialist dynamics and rivalries is also important. Contrary to various forms of economism he insists on the necessity of the state apparatuses for the expression and mediation of capitalist interests in the international system. In this sense, we are dealing with a political theory of imperialism. Imperialism presupposes political power as a condensation of class interests and inter-imperialist rivalries are political rivalries, struggles between different power blocks. This emphasis on the relative autonomy of the political protects Lenin’s argument from economistic reductionism and at the same time keeps capital accumulation and capitalist class interests as the necessary material ground if the whole process. This can be seen in the way that Lenin managed to propose a possible explanation for World War I, as the culmination of rival strategies for the hegemony in the imperialist system. His description of the causes of war explains the ‘paradox’ of a gigantic total-war effort with no territorial aims, no ideological justification and no direct economic objectives.

e) In this sense the emergence of the notion of the imperialist chain as suitable description of the hierarchal, uneven and contradictory character of the international system has been an important theoretical development[6]. Class struggle within the borders of each social formation determines its position in the hierarchy of the imperialist chain. The form of social alliances, the stage of capitalist development, the level of capitalist productivity, its military and political might, as well as its ideological influence, can reinforce or undermine the international power of a capitalist social formation. This entails that a social formation’s rank in the imperialist chain is not based only on its level of economic development but also on the entirety of its political and military power. The relative weight of the political or the economic sphere depends in each case on the evolution of class struggle (Poulantzas 1974).

In conclusion Lenin’s endeavour was to prove how the old imperialism has been changed and to sketch an outline describing the content of the new phase. Our intention is to show that this conception is still theoretically viable and offers a way to think of capitalist imperialism as without resorting to pre-capitalist conceptions of empire building.



3. The return of the notion of imperialism: The current Marxist debate on the ‘New Imperialism’


The current debate on the new imperialism has brought forward very fruitful and interesting contributions and it is an evidence of the continuing theoretical relevance of Marxism. However one can see how the above mentioned questions remain open and old contradictions tend to resurface. Below is some of these contradictions.

There is a strong theoretical temptation to consider imperialism as an answer to unresolved contradictions and lack of areas of investment and accumulation. David Harvey's theory of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003) as a main aspect of modern imperialism is strongly reminiscent of Rosa Luxembourg's theory of imperialist expansion as a quest for a non-capitalist exterior to compensate for interior underconsumption. We believe that this approach can lead to a teleological conception of capitalism always facing unsurpassable limits and does not take into consideration capitalism's ability not only to survive but also to reproduce capitalist accumulation by deepening capitalist relations of production and reproduction.

There is a tendency, in many variations, of thinking modern imperialism in terms of Empire-building, implying a sense of historical continuum between capitalist and non-capitalist forms of imperialist expansion. This has been especially true of theorists in the tradition of World Systems Theory but also by those theorists in a more Realist tradition that tried to describe US policy in the 2000s. As we will try to show we believe that this approach tends to underestimate the difference between capitalist and non-capitalist forms of imperialism, between pre-capitalist imperial domination and modern capitalist-imperialist hierarchy and between capitalist and non-capitalist trade.

There is a tendency to think the articulation of the economic and the political in Marxist theory in terms of an articulation of economic and geopolitical considerations (Callinicos 2005; Gowan 1999). However insightful this combination of Marxist political economy and Realist theory of International Relations might be – especially when considered in comparison to the idealism of 'globalist' theories – the problem remains that we cannot be satisfied with rather simplistic Hobbesian conceptions of political power and Great Power rivalry that are the backbone of Realist theories of International Relations[7]. This could be a retreat in comparison to the revolutionizing character of the Marxist linking of political power, objective class interest and ideology, especially in Gramsci's theory of hegemony.

There is always a tendency to reproduce classical superimperialist positions. Panitch and Gindis' (2004) theory of the American 'informal empire', however interesting and insightful it might be, especially as a welcome refusal of theories of American decline and a reminder of the originality and continuing relevance of Poulantzas' writings on imperialism, tends to present a picture of the world in which the element of antagonism is underestimated.

Among current theories of imperialism there is a tendency to insist on a conception of a continuing structural capitalist crisis. This conception of the “long downturn”, evident in both Robert Brenner's work (Brenner 2002) and writings by Alex Callinicos, tends to underestimate the extent of capitalist restructuring during the past decades, and as a consequence to treat current forms of imperialism as defensive attempts to counter falling profitability.

The question of the theorization of modern imperialism also brings forward rather problematic conceptions of the relation of the economic and the political in the capitalist mode of production. For example Ellen Meiksins Wood's Empire of Capital (Wood 2003), while being one of the most well-argued theorizations of the difference between territorial and commercial pre-capitalist imperialism and modern non-territorial capitalist imperialism, tends to treat capitalism mainly in terms of capitalist social-property relations (in the form of the “ideal type” of English capitalism) and to underestimate the importance of the evolution of modern state-forms especially in continental Europe.

In light of the above it is necessary to continue the theoretical debate. In this sense we offer the following outline of a working hypothesis for a theory of the necessarily non-territorial character of modern capitalist imperialism.



4. From pre-capitalist imperial colonialism to capitalist (non territorial) imperialism.


The territorial character of pre-capitalist imperialism has been well documented. Because the extraction of surpluses referred mainly to extracting surpluses out of peasants and it was mainly based on ‘extra-economic’ coercive means some form of direct political rule on the areas these peasants populated was necessary. The only way to increase political and economic power was for the state to be able to expand the territory of its rule. Empire as a form of political rule emerged in this context, first of all as an Empire of Property (Wood 2003), as an attempt to use superior political force in order to acquire land and consequently wealth.

The problem and the origin of many theoretical problems was that the emergence of capitalism coincided with a period of territorial expansion, in the form of colonial empire-building. We think it is necessary to bear in mind the following points when thinking about territorial expansion during the emergence of capitalism

First of all, aspects of the initial colonial empires, especially those of the Portuguese and Spanish states, had more to do with pre-capitalist forms of peasant surplus extraction, depending mainly on landed property and extra-economic forms of exploitation (Wood 2003). The fact that this form of imperialism was historically concurrent with the emergence of capitalism in other areas, or that the influx of materials from the colonies eventually strengthened capitalist production in Europe, does not mean that the nature of the social relations it was based on was intrinsically capitalist.

Secondly we believe that there is ample documentation on how aspects of what is usually presented as primitive accumulation led to forms of territorial colonial expansion. Marx in Capital presents a very clear picture of the way colonial rule was a necessary prerequisite, in the sense of providing material, wealth and slave labour for the transition from feudalism to capitalism but not the essence of capitalism.[8]

Thirdly, we think that a distinction has to be made between pre-capitalist and capitalist forms of trade and commerce, even though one can witness the co-existence of both forms in the early colonial era. The capitalist trade increases the pressure for surplus extraction in the labour process; in contrast, pre-capitalist trade connects the centre of production with a distant market and gains profits by setting prices monopolistically. Necessary presupposition for the pre-capitalist trade profits was direct physical control backed up by direct military force (Rosenberg 1994; Wood 2003).

Fourthly, although colonial expansion was at first necessary also as a means to violently expand the reach of capitalist social relations in non-capitalist parts of the world, in the 20th century imperial colonialism ceased to be necessary for the extended reproduction of capitalist accumulation. During the 19th Century the developed capitalist industry used the colonies as an orientation for exports. About 1 million yards of cotton cloth were exported form Britain to India in 1814 and 2,050 million around 1890; these imports covered about 55%- 75% of total textile consumption and reflected technological innovations which raised British productivity. Globally, the share of the Third World manufacturing in the world production fell from 73% (1750) to 7,5% (1913) (Bairoch 1986: 198-199). On the eve of the First World War the industrial independency of the Core countries had been accomplished. Some 99% of metals used by the developed countries’ industries came from the developed world; 90% of its textile fibres and 100% of its energy had the same origin. In sum, the self-sufficiency of the developed countries in raw materials was about 96-98% around 1913 (Bairoch 1986: 208- 209)[9]. This form of industrial independency of the Core countries became even more evident in the period between the two wars. Barriers to free trade led the developed countries to find substitutes for imported raw materials through the invention of artificial fertilizers, synthetic rubber, rayon, nylon and a vast range of plastics (Harman 2003). In this framework the incapacity of the colonies to develop their own industry was combined with the consequences of the Depression in 1929-1933 and the colonial governments were forced to increase the duties on the imported industrial products, including those coming from the metropolis, like Britain or France (Hobsbawm 1999: 266- 267). The result was the adoption of a policy of import substitution and the creation of an indigenous industry (Tomlinson 1996: 150- 153)[10], a trend which leaded to the formation of an indigenous bourgeoisie. These changes in combination with the rising nationalist agitation and the economic consequences of the WWII created the causes for the failure of the British Imperial Colonialism. The final conclusion is that the Core Countries from one moment and beyond and especially after the economic disasters created by the WWII and the emergence of the anti-colonial movements did not have any reason to maintain colonial regimes[11].

Fifthly, refusing a strategy of territorial imperialism the US, especially after WWII, chose a completely different course of action. The ruling class of the US had realized the territorial enlargement it is necessary only as a means to enhance primitive accumulation. US elites adopted an overseas economic expansion backed by military bases in contrast to propositions which favoured colonialism (as in Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) (Tully 2005; Parrini and Sclar 1993). These trends reflected the necessity for a new strategy corresponding to the new age. Britain and the other imperial states were trapped to a strategy related to a previous stage of capitalist development[12]. This does not imply that American Imperialism even in its first steps was less violent, but the exercise of force aimed at a different form of imperialism. Therefore we can conclude that the insistence on the relation between imperialism and some form of territorial expansion cannot explain the emergence of the US as the leading capitalist social formation, in the 20th century and the emergence, especially in the post-WWII era, of a non-territorial imperialism, based on the internationalization of capital and hegemonic relations within a system of territorially sovereign states, with the imperialist chain as the contradictory and uneven relation between sovereign nation-states.

The preceding argument should not be read as an example of a functionalist and / or teleological reading. The emergence of a non-territorial imperialism is not the ideal type of a capitalist international system or the fulfilment of an inherent essential tendency. Rather, it was the contingent outcome of a complex and uneven historical process in which many political forms emerged, but proved unable to guarantee the extended reproduction of capitalism. It was a process in which capitalism not only coincided with pre-capitalist modes of production and their political forms but also actually used it as a means to consolidate its dominance, the absolutist state being the first example that comes to mind (Anderson 1974). That’s why one might say that there was an ‘encounter’[13] of different historical elements in a historically original articulation that led to this dominance, an encounter that included false starts, missed rendezvous and dead ends before it took its current form. When talking about territorial imperialism not being an essential tendency of capitalism we refer to this open sense of history as a process without subject and End, not in some form of metaphysical teleology.



5. The specifically capitalist non-territorial imperialism


So far our argument has been that direct territorial domination and expansion is a characteristic of pre-capitalist modes of production where direct access and possession of land and scarce resources and the ability to exercise direct physical force on populations in order to extract surpluses (‘extra-economic’ coercion) were structural aspects of social reproduction. On the contrary the emergence of capitalism as a dominant mode of production and of an international system based on territorially sovereign nation-states, meant that productivity, technological change, real subsumption of labour meant that territorial gains of colonial dominions were no longer essential conditions for the reproduction of the system. On the contrary what emerges as the main aspect of modern specifically capitalist imperialism is the internationalization of capital.

Our main point is that the internationalization of capital, its tendency to transcend national borders, in the form of products, capital exports, capital movements and the search all over the world for better profitability is not an unmediated purely economic process in the same way that exploitation cannot be reproduced by purely economic means. If political power and ideological hegemony are necessary conditions for the reproduction of capitalist social relations, the same goes for the internationalization of capital: some form of political intervention (and ideological legitimization) is necessary for it. This is a general feature, a structural necessity; the specific form of this political and ideological guarantee is subject to historical contingencies, and this can explain the move from imperialism in the form of rival colonial empires to the more ‘modern’ imperialism of a hierarchy of imperialist formations, with the US in the hegemonic role of politically and militarily guaranteeing the global collective capitalist interest.  

  The development of the characteristics such as the centralization and the concentration of capital, capital exports, the rising role of the finance capital and the importance of inter-imperialist rivalries, and the fact that the very process of expansion of capitalist relations of production through colonialism eventually led to the emergence of aspiring bourgeoisies that demanded national liberation and territorial integration, created the presuppositions for the transition to new stage of capitalism, the imperialist stage which did not specifically refer to the possession of colonies (Brewer 1990: 123).

This does not mean that the evolution of capitalism led to a world of peacefully coexisting and cooperating nation-states. Competition between different capitals in the international system takes the form not only of competition between different national capitals but also to competition and antagonism between different states as representatives of their collective capitalist interest. That is why we insist that the notion of the imperialist chain is still an accurate description of the uneven and complex relations of interdependence between different national formations and power blocks.

And when we talk about some form of necessary political intervention as a prerequisite for the internationalization of capital we do not refer only to ‘classical’ forms of military intervention or ‘gunboat diplomacy’, but also to other forms of political intervention mediated by the state. For example, the formation of the current international financial architecture was not just a spontaneous process and same goes for the lowering of barriers to the free flow of products and capital and the political decision to expose capitalist social formations to competitive pressure of world markets and capital movements.

In this light we must tackle the question of the causes of war. If one sees war, especially imperialist war, as a form of territorial expansion, then it is true that the development of capitalism and the importance of capital exports make this sort of expansion (and any military preparation for it) unnecessary. But one should not forget that two World Wars were mainly not the outcome of territorial disputes. It is true that the question of the dissolution of Empires acted as a catalyst for WWI, and one should not underestimate the initial importance of Nazi Germany’s claim over all of the territories with German-speaking minorities in the outbreak of WWII. But it is also obvious that in both world wars the scale of the mobilization and the extent of the conflict were beyond simple territorial claims. It was a fight for leadership and hegemony in the capitalist world. These wars were mainly forms of escalating political antagonism, due to condensed contradictions concerning the hegemonic position in the imperialist chain. If one sees war as an extreme case of political confrontation, then we can insist on antagonism as the structural aspect of interstate relations. Whether this antagonism takes the form of military confrontation or remains in strictly political terms (that is within the limits of current international law and custom) is a conjectural aspect.

This does not mean that mean that territorial expansion, integration and conflict has not been an important aspect of the history of capitalism. The modern nation-states emerged through the formation of bourgeois power blocks and their claim for national sovereignty, as a necessary condition for the expanded reproduction of capital accumulation and bourgeois rule, something that more often than not led to war and interstate conflict. National liberation and / or integration have been – and still are – an important motive for war but this should not be confused with imperial ambition and inter-imperialist conflict, even in cases where inter-imperialist rivalry was presented in the more legitimate vocabulary of national dignity, a fact witnessed in both World Wars.

Such a conception of inter-state and inter-imperialist rivalry and conflict needs a redefinition of the notion of power and power relations. The main problem of traditional theories of interstate relations and geopolitical conflicts is that they entail a rather simplistic notion of power as force and command. Marxism, instead, offers a definition of power as the “capacity of a social class to realize its specific objective interests” (Poulantzas 1978: 104). This priority of exploitation over domination offers an explanation of power as class power, ability of social groups to control the extraction and distribution of surplus labour because of their specific objective structural class position. It offers a possible explanation of the class character of power relations and struggles and therefore also of state apparatuses. The key point, in our opinion, is to stress at the same time the analytic priority of exploitation over repression and domination, and the importance of the fact that the object of political practice is the condensation of all the contradictions of the various levels of a social formation (Poulantzas 1978: 41). This notion of the political escapes the shortcomings of mainstream political science’s notion of political power as administrative command and insists on the class character of political power. That is why we cannot take states as the primary forces in shaping the international plane, but instead we must look at the different class alliances and power blocs and how these affect the formation of objective capitalist class interest. It is this class interest that is then expressed as political strategy, state policy and consequently international policy. The importance of Marxism is that it brings forward how states’ behaviour in the international plane is itself conditioned by the articulation of class contradictions and political strategies and the emergence of hegemonic power blocs. It offers the possibility to treat interstate relations as class based relations, as relations (and conflicts) between different power blocs. Marxism stresses the importance of particular historical modes of production for interstate relations. Contrary to the ahistorical stance of traditional International Relations theory, Marxist theory provides a theoretical framework that helps understand how the emergence of the capitalist mode of production changes the very notion of international relations. Marxism offers a more comprehensive account of social and political power and antagonism that goes beyond the mechanics of power versus normative considerations dichotomy that marks mainstream International Relations theory.

In this sense we have to make a necessary distinction. The current return of the notion of ‘geopolitcs’ is a welcome refusal of the economistic idealism of the ‘globalization’ rhetoric. However, it poses the danger of a return to a pre-Marxist conception of political power. Of course, if ‘geopolitics’ is a metonymic reference to the State’s relative autonomy vis-à-vis the economy or the relative autonomy of the political in general, then we do not disagree in  principle, but we still insist on a terminology that underlines the conceptual break between Marxist and non-Marxist theories of Imperialism.

Our emphasis on the non-territorial character of specifically capitalist imperialism should not be read as a negation of the necessary territorial or spatial aspects of capitalist accumulation. Nor should it be read as a reference to some form of ‘free flow’ of capitals in a homogenized de-territorialized international space. On the contrary one might say that the non-territoriality of capitalist imperialism, in the sense of direct territorial domination, is exactly the result of the territoriality of the modern nation-state as a main political form for the reproduction of capitalist relations of exploitation. Nation-states remain the main loci for the extended reproduction of capitalist accumulation, thus being the main factor determining the actual territoriality or spatial configuration of modern imperialism. On the contrary traditional Geopolitics with their references to ‘spheres of influence’, ‘strategic interests’, ‘vital resources’, tend to reproduce an image of the world that has more to do with the colonial – imperial look, in the sense of capitalist empires viewing the non-capitalist world as an open space for domination and exploitation, than with the actual reality of great parts of the world being capitalist social formations and sovereign nation-states.

It is in light of the above that we can discuss the question of hierarchy in the imperialist chain, especially since the current return of the notion of imperialism in the political and theoretical debate was also a result of the US openly – and ‘unilaterally’– asserting its leadership and claiming to be a global hegemon, contrary to the more collegial rhetoric that characterized the heyday of ‘globalization’.

The question is can the role of the US be described as simply world dominance or power supremacy, through the use of force and the ability to directly have access to contested territories and scarce resources?  We think that such a view tends to regress to a more traditionally Realist view of international relations and also to a more territorial logic of interstate and inter-imperialist relations. We believe that the Hobbesian view of power antagonism between self-sufficient and ‘selfish’ agents that characterizes Realism is inadequate to theorize the complex dialectic of competition and cooperation, antagonism and interdependence, conflict and alliance building in the international system. In this sense the US is not simply imposing its will on unwilling subjects (despite the occasional twist of arms) but manages (at least up to now) to assume a position of leadership in what is at the same time a terrain of antagonisms and an imperialist block. It is also evident that what can be described as the more ‘geopolitical’ moment of current imperialism, for example the effort to safeguard the flow of oil towards the West, cannot be theorized in territorial terms, since the aim of the current American military interventionism in the Middle East is performed in the name of the collective interest of the capitalist world to have access to energy resources, and not in the name of direct American colonization of those parts of the world.

More generally we think that the leading social formation in the imperialist chain is not just the more powerful economically or politico-militarily; above all it must be able to offer plausible strategies for the collective capital interest of the whole imperialist chain. It is in this sense that it can account for the dialectic between antagonism and hierarchy much better than traditional power-politics approaches that can account only for conjectural balance of force hierarchies, but not for cases of strategic political and ‘moral’ leadership. That is why we think that the best way to describe the international system is to combine Lenin’s insightful conception of the imperialist chain with a Gramscian conception of Hegemony. And of course when we refer to hegemony as something much more complex than simple domination, we never forget that hegemony refers to a power relation. And power relations are, in the last instance, relations of conflict and antagonism.

The notion of hegemony, as it was introduced in the Marxist literature by Antonio Gramsci (1971), presents political power and class domination as the dialectic of coercion and consent and offers a wider sense of class antagonisms and political struggles that goes beyond both realist cynicism and idealistic legalism. Hegemony, in this view, comprises political and military repression, ideological misrecognition and material concessions[14], and offers a better description both of social antagonism and of the hierarchies arising in the international plane[15].

If the notion of the imperialist chain, as it was introduced under the influence of Lenin, is accurate as a description of the contradictory, hierarchical and interdependent character and the uneven development of an international system based upon the enlarged reproduction of capitalist social relations in nation-states[16], the notion of hegemony can help explain the mechanisms of leadership in the imperialist chain. The leading social formation is not just the more powerful economically or politico-militarily; above all it must be able to offer plausible strategies for the collective capital interest of the whole imperialist chain. Hegemony can account for the dialectic between antagonism and hierarchy much better than traditional power-politics approaches that can account only for conjectural balance of force hierarchies, but not for cases of strategic political and ‘moral’ leadership.

This notion of hegemony in the imperialist chain should not be seen as some sort of altruistic attitude. Rather, it refers to those historically specific conjectures that fulfilling the prerequisites for the long-term interest of the ruling bloc of the leading imperialist formation also induces the safeguarding of certain aspects of the class interests of the ruling classes in the other formations in the imperialist chain. Naturally, there is also plenty room for antagonisms, even for crises of hegemony. American foreign policy after 1945 aimed not only at guarantying American supremacy but also at offering elements of a collective strategy for the whole imperialist chain (rapid industrialization, ‘fordist’ accumulation strategies, mass consumerism and individualism, a combination between anti-communism and technocratic ideology). Even the most openly ‘geopolitical’ forms of American political and military interventions, which can indeed be used as an illustration of an attempt towards world domination, such as the extended network of military bases, Air-Force bases and CIA stations, can be best interpretated be reference to a hegemonic strategy. They are not simple imperial outposts, but mainly make manifest to ability of the US to militarily guarantee capitalist social order all over the world. American political and military intervention during the last 60 years did not aim solely at guaranteeing American interests, nor did they aimed at creating colonies, but mainly at safeguarding the reproduction of capitalist social relations, bourgeois rule and capitalist accumulation in the social formations in question

This complexity of hegemony in the imperialist chain means that we should always be very careful when talking about imperial decline. Crisis of hegemony cannot be a simple factor process. In the 1970s the US suffered actual military defeats in South-east Asia, capital over-accumulation, fiscal crisis, and the economic challenge posed by Japan and West Germany. Yet the US not only managed to retain global leadership but also to eventually offer in the 1980s and 1990s an hegemonic strategy that combined neoliberalism, capitalist restructuring, the intensification of the internationalization of capital and the lowering of barriers to the free flow of capitals and products, the incorporation in the imperialist chain of former socialist formations, the authoritarian backlash against labour, and a more aggressive form of imperialist interventionism. In this sense the current conjuncture of crisis in global finance and growing signs of over-accumulation tendencies surely poses a test and challenge for US hegemony but should not be considered as automatically leading to a case of imperial decline.

To conclude: In order for the return of the notion of imperialism to be really fruitful theoretically the debate must proceed beyond simplifications and the borrowing of concepts from theoretical traditions alien to the way Marxism revolutionized how we think of power and power relations.



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[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2008 Historical Materialism Conference in London. In revising it we took into consideration the discussion at the panel conference and especially the criticism by co-discussant Alex Callinicos.

[2] For a reading of classical theories of imperialism see Milios (1988: 11-46).

[3] In this sense, the difference between Kautsky’s vision of ultra-imperialism (Kautsky 1914) and Lenin’s emphasis on inter-imperialist antagonism and war is primarily analytical, and concerns Lenin’s insistence that uneven development and antagonism are essential characteristics of the imperialist chain whereas forms of inter-imperialist cooperation are mainly contingent outcomes of particular conjunctures.

[4] And the way his position were further developed by important Marxist scholars such as Poulantzas (1979).

[5] John Milios has emphasized the importance of Bukharin’s writings on Imperialism in the late 1920s. See Milios 1988: 38-42

[6] On the importance of the notion of the imperialist chain see Poulantzas 1974: 20-23 and Althusser 1965: 92-96.

[7] On Realism (and neo-realism) as a theoretical tradition in international relations see Carr 1939, Wight 1994, Waltz 1979, Frankel (ed.) 1996. For a criticism of traditional international relations theory see Rosenberg 1994.

[8] “The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power” Marx 1887: 477.


[9]At the same time the orientation of the great part of the British investments directed abroad of the British areas and their colonies, principally towards to dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) and to  US, Argentina and Uruguay (Hobsbawm 2000: 109). 

[10]From this point of view it is not surprising the fact that the share of imports in cotton textile consumption fall from 63% in 1900 to 12% in 1936.

[11] This does not mean that territorial expansion, integration and conflict have not been an important aspect of the history of capitalism. The modern nation-states emerged through the formation of bourgeois power blocks and their claim for national sovereignty, as a necessary condition for the expanded reproduction of capital accumulation and bourgeois rule, something that led to war and interstate conflict. National liberation and / or integration have been – and still are – an important motive for war but this should not be confused with imperial ambition and inter-imperialist conflict, even in cases where inter-imperialist rivalry was presented in the more legitimate vocabulary of national dignity.

[12]From this point of view is the very characteristic the fact that the British share in the world industrial production fell from 31,8% to 14,0%; the same for the French share which declined  from 10,3% (1870) to 6,4% (1913) (Leon as cited by Kremmydas 2004: 335).  

[13] In the sense used by Louis Althusser in his later writings (Althusser 2006).

[14] For the importance of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony see Macciocchi 1974 and Buci-Glucksmann 1980. Lenin also uses the notion of hegemony, but in a more ‘geopolitical’ sense. See for example his following comment: “an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several Great Powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony” (Lenin 1970: 109).

[15] It was Robert W. Cox that emphasized the importance of hegemony in international relations theory (Cox 1985; 1987).

[16] On the importance of the notion of the imperialist chain see Poulantzas 1974: 20-23 and Althusser 1965: 92-96.