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Imperialism and Global Political Economy

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Alex Callinicos’s new book is a vindication of the Marxist theory of imperialism, showing its continuing relevance to contemporary debates, writes Richard Seymour
Issue 2158

Empire is back on the agenda. Once a dirty word, it is now a mainstay of best-selling books and discussed in the universities. Yet there is considerable disagreement as to what empire really means.

Alex Callinicos’s new book, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, is a crucial intervention into these arguments.

Its analysis is grounded in what Callinicos refers to as the “classical” legacy of Marxist theory on imperialism.

This is the tradition of thought exemplified by the Russian Marxists Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, according to which imperialism is a particular stage of capitalist development.

Imperialism in this light does not refer so much to the European colonies of the early modern period, such as the Spain’s conquest of the Americas, nor to empires such as Rome, which demanded tribute from its conquered lands.

For both Lenin and Bukharin, imperialism was characterised by the dominance of monopolies and finance capital, and the integration of private capital with the nation-state.

In this phase, competition between capitals was no longer characterised simply by rivalry between private firms, but also military competition between states.

Numerous criticisms have been made of this argument. For instance, it has been pointed out that finance capital was only important in certain cases of imperialism.

It was much less crucial for the British Empire than the German Reich, for example, in the three decades before the First World War.

Callinicos takes note of such criticisms, and finds fault with Lenin and Bukharin’s theories in a number of ways.

Nevertheless, he defends their emphasis on the logic of capitalist development – on capital’s tendency to accumulate and become concentrated in giant corporations, which fuse with the nation-state at the same time as it expands outwards.

Such explanations of imperialism have always been rejected in more mainstream accounts.

On the one hand, there are triumphalist narratives from those such as the right wing historian Niall Ferguson.


These hail the British Empire’s role in creating global institutions for markets, development and trade, alleging – against a mountain of countervailing evidence – that empire is ultimately a humane and stabilising force.

On the other hand, “realist” theorists of international relations argue that the drive by the imperialist states to dominate the globe is down to the necessities of great power rivalries and not the logic of capitalism.

In this view, empire is the result of clashes between states, which remain essentially the same throughout history, no matter the form of the economy and society.

For them, the same dynamic exists in ancient societies, feudalism and capitalism.

Callinicos’s brief, though, is to explain what is distinctive about capitalist imperialism. He argues that it is the “intersection of two logics of power”.

One of these is territorial – the drive to divide the world between states – and one is capitalist – the creation of a global economy which spreads across the borders of every state.

Some have argued that today’s European states emerged in a feudal, absolutist context not a capitalist one.

Therefore, they say, capitalism inherited a pre-capitalist state form and it could just as well operate in a transnational state as a national one.

Yet states such as Germany and Italy were unified under capitalism. The modern French and British states are the product of revolution and civil war.

The final step in the creation of the British state was the destruction of a feudal society in the Scottish Highlands at the battle of Culloden in 1746.

States which pre-dated capitalism were also transformed by it. At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian Tsar wished to maintain his autocratic rule while creating modern industry to provide the wealth and armaments to match rival states such as Germany.

Economic, financial and military power is concentrated in a small number of states in North America, western Europe and East Asia. That is where the giant corporations and banks are overwhelmingly to be found.

Capitalists have an interest in preserving the national state to which they have preferential access.

One example of the way this relationship works is in the development of capitalism in the northern Netherlands in the 16th century.


Although the Holy Roman emperor Charles V had created the United Provinces as an administrative unit, they didn’t become a nation-state until the local nobility and bourgeoisie decided to overthrow Spanish rule.

They could do so in the end because a commercial economy emerged where producers were not burdened by the feudal forms that other European states were.

Instead, producers were driven by the imperatives of competition to invest in productive capacity and technological innovation. This dynamism partially explains the success of the Dutch Revolt.

The wealth being accumulated by northern elites stiffened their resolve to defeat Charles’s successor Philip II, escape his burdensome taxation, and build a state in which they would lead.

It enabled them to invest in naval development, blockade the Spanish coastline, and ultimately defeat a major continental and world power.

Thus a nation-state was born, which subsequently developed into a vast commercial empire that lasted until the late 18th century.

Callinicos does not reduce the state to an instrument of the capitalist class.

Rather, state managers operate within limits imposed by the system that they help reproduce.

Occasionally a crisis, such as a depression or war, will enable them to act in ways that wouldn’t be approved by most capitalists.


But by and large, they require the cooperation of capitalists to maintain growth, a tax base and relative social stability, and act in ways that are more likely than not to favour the interests of capital.

In addition, there is always competition between different blocs of capitalist power for access to the state.

This means that state action is not rigidly determined by economic power, since there are such a variety of interpretations of the “national interest” and a variety of ways to defend it.

The most enlightening passages in the book are the historical analyses of how modern capitalist imperialism developed.

Callinicos explains why Western societies created modern imperialism overtaking competitors in the East, which had previously been more developed and wealthy.

He examines the different imperial strategies pursued by the US compared to its European rivals with their established colonial empires.

During and after the Second World War, the US was happy to see colonialism dismantled because it could rely on its economic power to dominate much of the globe.

Callinicos describes three phases of imperialism.

The first is that of “classical imperialism” between 1870-1945, involving a multi-polar system of competing imperialisms.

The second is “superpower imperialism” between 1945-90, in which the world system was essentially bipolar, with local rivalries subordinated to the titanic struggle between the US and the Soviet Union.

The final is “imperialism after the Cold War” from 1990 onwards, in which multi-polar rivalries have returned, if in a somewhat muted form.

The US has worked hard to maintain its dominance in traditional spheres of influence, and as Callinicos points out a likely rival has yet to emerge.

Yet the system is increasingly unstable due to overproduction of goods and decreased profits.

The danger is that inter-imperialist rivalry raises the prospect of intensified military competition and struggles over territory and resources.

Imperialism and Global Political Economy is an invaluable guide as well as a unique and persuasive argument by itself.

Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence Of Murder. He runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog – go to »

Imperialism and Global Political Economy by Alex Callinicos is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £15. Go to » or phone 020 7637 1848

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