The Specificity of Imperialism

La bataille du riz
Gilles Ail­laud, La bataille du riz, 1968

“Impe­ri­al­ism,” David Har­vey announced at a round­table last year, should be seen as a “sort of metaphor, rather than any­thing real.” This came as quite a shock, not least because it was none oth­er than Har­vey him­self who wrote one of the most acclaimed accounts of con­tem­po­rary impe­ri­al­ism, The New Impe­ri­al­ism.

Har­vey went on to explain that recent devel­op­ments in cap­i­tal­ism – such as multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, tech­no­log­i­cal net­works, or shifts in the glob­al divi­sion of labor – have raised enor­mous ques­tions about how we under­stand impe­ri­al­ism today. What, for exam­ple, are we to make of the fact that Latin Amer­i­ca is being turned into a mas­sive soy­bean plan­ta­tion, with most of the exports head­ed for Chi­na? Or, to take a sim­i­lar, though even more dras­tic exam­ple that Har­vey does not men­tion, how can we explain the fact that the sin­gle great­est U.S. export to Chi­na is soy­beans, while China’s biggest export to the Unit­ed States is com­put­ers? Does that make Chi­na an impe­ri­al­ist pow­er? Is it extract­ing wealth from the periph­ery? Is the Unit­ed States slip­ping into the periph­ery?

Real­i­ty, Har­vey sug­gest­ed, has become far too com­pli­cat­ed for con­ven­tion­al mod­els of impe­ri­al­ism. In fact, the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism has become a kind of “straight­jack­et,” pre­vent­ing us from real­ly under­stand­ing new his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments. Instead of try­ing to “cram all of this into a uni­ver­sal con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism,” we “need a new way of look­ing” at the world. For Har­vey, that means we have to start by ditch­ing the word “impe­ri­al­ism.”

Har­vey is cer­tain­ly right that most Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism have run into stum­bling blocks try­ing to explain the rich­ness of con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty. I would go fur­ther to sug­gest that these lim­its are not actu­al­ly new. In fact, from the start, most Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism had a dif­fi­cult time offer­ing an accu­rate account of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments. Even when their pre­dic­tions seemed to be true, for exam­ple V. I. Lenin’s claim that cap­i­tal­ist rival­ries were lead­ing to world war, these the­o­ries were some­times right for the wrong rea­sons.

For a time, these lim­i­ta­tions were over­looked, not only because these the­o­ries did seem to explain some very impor­tant fea­tures of the late 19th and 20th cen­turies, but because “impe­ri­al­ism” dou­bled as both a sci­en­tif­ic con­cept and as a pop­u­lar ral­ly­ing cry. In addi­tion to its sci­en­tif­ic func­tion of attempt­ing to explain his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty, impe­ri­al­ism also served a num­ber of incred­i­bly impor­tant polit­i­cal func­tions.1 It named an ene­my, unit­ed dif­fer­ent strug­gles, and sig­naled a col­lec­tive project to change the world. By the 1970s, impe­ri­al­ism was per­haps the most com­mon­ly used word in the rad­i­cal vocab­u­lary, but it was also one whose spe­cif­ic mean­ing was becom­ing increas­ing­ly unsta­ble.

But by the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the defeats of so many anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles, along­side new and strange his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments, forced many thorny ques­tions – some old, oth­ers new – onto the table. Why was it that for many coun­tries, colo­nial­ism pre­ced­ed cap­i­tal­ism? How do we explain the fact that for many states, colo­nial expan­sion in the late 19th cen­tu­ry was in many cas­es not pri­mar­i­ly moti­vat­ed by the search for greater prof­its? How come many empires fought to retain their colonies even though the extreme vio­lence they imposed on sub­ju­gat­ed peo­ples did not real­ly gen­er­ate antic­i­pat­ed prof­its for the metro­pole? How was it that some periph­er­al coun­tries sup­pos­ed­ly doomed to per­pet­u­al “back­ward­ness” came to devel­op high­ly advanced cap­i­tal­ist sec­tors? Why did new­ly inde­pen­dent coun­tries them­selves start to exhib­it impe­ri­al­ist behav­iors? Indeed, how do we make sense of the fact that in the 1970s three social­ist coun­tries in South­east Asia threw them­selves into what looked very much like an impe­ri­al­ist war?

These are only some of the ques­tions that have chal­lenged con­ven­tion­al the­o­ries of Marx­ism. The fact that these the­o­ries have often failed to offer con­vinc­ing answers has led some to doubt the use­ful­ness of the term. But the solu­tion to the impasse is not, as Har­vey sug­gests, to jet­ti­son the word “impe­ri­al­ism.” On the con­trary, the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism can still pro­vide answers to these ques­tions, make sense of recent devel­op­ments, and help inform inter­na­tion­al­ist strug­gles today. But before that can hap­pen, the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism has to be mod­i­fied. That means, first and fore­most, rethink­ing some of the key assump­tions of old­er Marx­ist the­o­ries.

The most fun­da­men­tal of these assump­tions, and what has become the pri­ma­ry weak­ness of most Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism, is the ten­den­cy to see impe­ri­al­ism as a symp­tom of the inevitable con­tra­dic­tions of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. For many of the clas­si­cal the­o­rists, the the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism was an exten­sion of cri­sis the­o­ry. But even the lat­er depen­den­cy the­o­rists, like Andre Gun­der Frank, who crit­i­cized some aspects of the clas­si­cal the­o­ries, retained a sim­i­lar assump­tion. For many of them, impe­ri­al­ism was more or less equat­ed with the glob­al expan­sion of cap­i­tal­ism.

Today, this auto­mat­ic con­nec­tion between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism has become a com­mon­place. Yet it often rests on a kind of eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism that sim­ply can­not explain the overde­ter­mined nature of impe­ri­al­ism. While impe­ri­al­ism may have eco­nom­ic moti­va­tions, it is always con­di­tioned and pro­pelled by a plu­ral­i­ty of oth­er, often con­tra­dic­to­ry, forces. This is why impe­ri­al­ist poli­cies often seem so inco­her­ent. This is why so often in his­to­ry impe­ri­al­ism has actu­al­ly worked against cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. And this is why many nation-states try­ing to free them­selves from impe­ri­al­ism often found them­selves exhibit­ing behav­ior that came dan­ger­ous­ly close to the very impe­ri­al­ism they sought to abol­ish.

The key to devel­op­ing a more accu­rate under­stand­ing of impe­ri­al­ism lies in find­ing a dif­fer­ent start­ing point. As some oth­er writ­ers, such as Sam Gindin and Leo Pan­itch, have sug­gest­ed, instead of approach­ing impe­ri­al­ism as an exten­sion of eco­nom­ic the­o­ries of cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion, and cri­sis the­o­ry more specif­i­cal­ly, we should devel­op impe­ri­al­ist the­o­ry out of a the­o­ry of the state.2 Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this was also the most under-the­o­rized aspect of Marx­ist the­o­ries, espe­cial­ly the clas­si­cal writ­ings of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. The eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism of these the­o­rists led them to treat the state as a mere instru­ment of cap­i­tal, a trans­par­ent tool wield­ed by the dom­i­nant class­es to do their bid­ding. As a result, they could only think of the state as that which real­izes the inter­ests of cap­i­tal. In so doing, they com­plete­ly erased the speci­fici­ty of the state, and with it, that of impe­ri­al­ism.

In con­trast to these ear­li­er accounts, we have to see the state as an ensem­ble of con­tra­dic­to­ry insti­tu­tions them­selves tra­versed, and pro­duced, by fierce strug­gles between and with­in class­es. Approach­ing the state as a social rela­tion, rather than as a thing, and see­ing states as them­selves embed­ded in con­tra­dic­to­ry, even antag­o­nis­tic rela­tions with each oth­er, helps us refine the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism. Impe­ri­al­ism, to antic­i­pate the argu­ment, has to be broad­ly under­stood as a rela­tion­ship of dom­i­na­tion between states, rather than as a syn­onym for cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion.

To be sure, we must con­tin­ue to oppose both impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, but it is pre­cise­ly by insist­ing on their speci­fici­ties, rather than con­flat­ing them into an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed whole, that we can bet­ter orga­nize our strug­gles to over­turn them.3

The Classics

Between 1870 and 1900, the largest colo­nial pow­ers came close to dou­bling the size of their ter­ri­to­ries. By the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, over 90 per­cent of Africa had been forced under Euro­pean colo­nial rule.

In 1902, the British jour­nal­ist J. A. Hob­son set out to explain this sud­den burst of Euro­pean colo­nial­ism. He did so by con­nect­ing it direct­ly to cap­i­tal­ism. The growth of monop­o­lies in the major cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, he argued, had led to a con­trac­tion of work­ers’ dis­pos­able income. This led to a fall in con­sump­tion, which in turn fore­shad­owed an inevitable eco­nom­ic cri­sis at home. The cap­i­tal­ist solu­tion to this cri­sis of under­con­sump­tion, Hob­son claimed, was to export this sur­plus cap­i­tal to the rest of the globe, with Euro­pean states act­ing as the pli­able instru­ments of these rav­en­ous monop­o­lies. It was this insa­tiable search for prof­its that led the Euro­pean pow­ers to carve up the globe and, ulti­mate­ly, clash with one anoth­er.4 In fact, this was the spe­cif­ic mean­ing of the term “impe­ri­al­ism” for Hob­son, as it would be for Lenin: the ten­den­cy for rival­ries between cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, expressed most dra­mat­i­cal­ly in colo­nial com­pe­ti­tion, to lead to war.5

Although Hob­son was him­self not a Marx­ist, his writ­ings set the tone for all the “clas­si­cal” Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism that fol­lowed.6 In 1910, Rudolf Hil­fer­d­ing pub­lished Finance Cap­i­tal, which fur­ther devel­oped the the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism. One of his major con­tri­bu­tions was to argue that bank cap­i­tal and indus­tri­al cap­i­tal had begun to fuse into what he called “finance cap­i­tal.” Finance cap­i­tal, he argued, has “three objec­tives: (1) To estab­lish the largest pos­si­ble eco­nom­ic ter­ri­to­ry; (2) to close this ter­ri­to­ry to for­eign com­pe­ti­tion by a wall of pro­tec­tive tar­iffs, and con­se­quent­ly; (3) to reserve it as an area of exploita­tion for the nation­al monop­o­lis­tic com­bi­na­tions.”7 Finance cap­i­tal, in short, forces the state to pur­sue a pol­i­tics of geo­graph­i­cal expan­sion.

Like Hob­son and Hil­fer­d­ing, Rosa Lux­em­burg also tried to locate impe­ri­al­ism in the con­tra­dic­tions of cap­i­tal­ism. In her 1913 mag­num opus, The Accu­mu­la­tion of Cap­i­tal, she argued that insuf­fi­cient effec­tive demand in the cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries meant that cap­i­tal­ism had to seek out mar­kets in the non-cap­i­tal­ist world to export sur­plus com­modi­ties. “Thus the imme­di­ate and vital con­di­tion for cap­i­tal and its accu­mu­la­tion,” she wrote, “is the exis­tence of non-cap­i­tal­ist buy­ers of the sur­plus val­ue, which is deci­sive to this extent for the prob­lem of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.”8 With­out these new con­sumers, excess sur­plus-val­ue would not be real­ized, and cap­i­tal­ism would col­lapse.

The most famous of these clas­si­cal the­o­ries was V. I. Lenin’s Impe­ri­al­ism: The High­est Stage of Cap­i­tal­ism. Unlike these oth­er texts, Lenin’s pri­ma­ry goal was not to offer a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism, but to syn­the­size exist­ing accounts into a focused polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion. Against Karl Kaut­sky, who sug­gest­ed that the impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries could find a way to col­lab­o­rate peace­ful­ly, Lenin argued vocif­er­ous­ly that in his his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, com­pe­ti­tion between cap­i­tal­ist states was lead­ing inevitably towards world war. Draw­ing on Hob­son and Hil­fer­d­ing, he argued that cap­i­tal­ism had become “over-ripe,” com­pelling the giant monop­o­lies said to be crop­ping up in Europe to export their cap­i­tal to “back­ward” regions of the globe for high­er rates of return. In ful­fill­ing their inter­ests, these monop­o­lies pushed their respec­tive states to carve up the world.

“Impe­ri­al­ism,” he sum­ma­rized, “is cap­i­tal­ism at that stage of devel­op­ment at which the dom­i­nance of monop­o­lies and finance cap­i­tal is estab­lished; in which the export of cap­i­tal has acquired pro­nounced impor­tance; in which the divi­sion of the world among the inter­na­tion­al trusts has begun, in which the divi­sion of all ter­ri­to­ries of the globe among the biggest cap­i­tal­ist pow­ers has been com­plet­ed.” Because of the uneven­ness of cap­i­tal­ism, this redi­vi­sion of the globe between rival cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries made war inevitable. There was, in oth­er words, no chance that the impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers would dis­cov­er a way to bring about peace on their own. As a result, there could be no reformist solu­tions, no alliances with domes­tic bour­geoisies, no nation­al­ist answers – only inter­na­tion­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion against cap­i­tal­ism.9

Despite very sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between these accounts, all the clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ries effec­tive­ly treat­ed impe­ri­al­ism as an exten­sion of cri­sis the­o­ry. In their hands, impe­ri­al­ist the­o­ry amount­ed to a “rad­i­cal the­o­ry of cap­i­tal expan­sion,” and their method of inquiry was to “iden­ti­fy cer­tain con­tra­dic­tions in the accu­mu­la­tion process impelling cap­i­tal out­ward.”10 Impe­ri­al­ism, in oth­er words, became a mere reflec­tion of cap­i­tal­ist con­tra­dic­tions. The ten­den­cy reached its peak with Lenin, who not only saw impe­ri­al­ism as a con­se­quence of the monop­oly stage of cap­i­tal­ism, but, because of his very loose writ­ing, seemed to sim­ply equate impe­ri­al­ism with glob­al­ly expand­ing cap­i­tal­ism as such. “Impe­ri­al­ism,” he declared, in a for­mu­la­tion that has sown much con­fu­sion, “is the monop­oly stage of cap­i­tal­ism.”

This was espe­cial­ly unfor­tu­nate. Lenin’s pam­phlet was not only meant to serve as a mere “pop­u­lar out­line,” as its sub­ti­tle makes explic­it, it was designed to speak to a very spe­cif­ic con­junc­ture. Yet Lenin’s enor­mous stature after the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion ensured that his lit­tle pam­phlet would be cod­i­fied as not only a gen­er­al the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism, nec­es­sar­i­ly applic­a­ble in all con­texts, but the ortho­dox the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­nist move­ment. The con­se­quences were enor­mous. For while Lenin’s the­o­ry did play an impor­tant polem­i­cal func­tion, sharply coun­ter­ing the reformist impli­ca­tions in Karl Kautsky’s the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ist coop­er­a­tion by insist­ing instead on the neces­si­ty of inter­na­tion­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion, it was itself rid­dled with weak­ness­es.

First, Lenin over­stat­ed the impor­tance of monop­o­lies. While some did appear to take hold in Ger­many, they played far less a role in Great Britain, which, after all, had the largest empire by far. But even in Ger­many, monop­o­lies that com­plete­ly dom­i­nat­ed the mar­ket for a sin­gle com­mod­i­ty were not wide­spread.

Sec­ond, Lenin was wrong about cap­i­tal exports as the dri­ver of impe­ri­al­ism. The major­i­ty of cap­i­tal exports in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies trav­eled not from Euro­pean coun­tries to their colonies, but with­in the cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries them­selves. To take one exam­ple, in 1902, the year Hobson’s study appeared, 36.42 per­cent of all French for­eign invest­ment went to Europe, 23.72 to Rus­sia, and a mea­gre 3.43 per­cent to its colo­nial empire.11 What’s more, even when cap­i­tal was export­ed abroad, impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers did not always seal their for­mal and infor­mal colonies from firms oper­at­ing out of rival coun­tries.

Third, Lenin’s the­o­ry relies on a peri­odiza­tion that makes it impos­si­ble to under­stand the his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism. After all, Lenin, as every­one knows, famous­ly called impe­ri­al­ism the “high­est stage of cap­i­tal­ism.” While it is true that this phrase, “high­est stage,” was a trans­la­tion error, as Lenin’s text was in fact ini­tial­ly pub­lished under the title Impe­ri­al­ism, the Lat­est Stage of Cap­i­tal­ism, it nev­er­the­less con­firms the stag­ism in Lenin’s approach. Lenin tend­ed to see impe­ri­al­ism as the attribute of an entire peri­od of his­to­ry begin­ning in the 1880s. In so doing, he end­ed up draw­ing too sharp a line between dif­fer­ent con­junc­tures, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to explain forms of impe­ri­al­ism before that decade, such as the British col­o­niza­tion of India, the French occu­pa­tion of Alge­ria in the 1830s, or Great Britain and the Unit­ed States’ infor­mal influ­ence over Latin Amer­i­ca. More­over, his reliance on peri­odiza­tion as a way to explain phe­nom­e­na, a habit shared by many Marx­ists in his time, tend­ed to flat­ten very dif­fer­ent forms of impe­ri­al­ism with­in the same his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. Stag­ism in turn fore­closed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of account­ing for the overde­ter­mined caus­es of impe­ri­al­ism even in his own time.

But the most sig­nif­i­cant the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem with Lenin’s account was his inabil­i­ty to ade­quate­ly the­o­rize the state. Admit­ted­ly, Lenin placed much greater empha­sis on the role of states than oth­er clas­si­cal the­o­rists. Unlike Lux­em­burg and Niko­lai Bukharin, who tend­ed to see cap­i­tal­ism as a uni­fied glob­al struc­ture, Lenin insist­ed on the pri­ma­cy of social rela­tions with­in spe­cif­ic social for­ma­tions, and there­fore of spe­cif­ic states.12 Nev­er­the­less, he, along with all the oth­er clas­si­cal the­o­rists, treat­ed states as the trans­par­ent instru­ments of cap­i­tal­ist monop­o­lies. In explain­ing the actions of states, and impe­ri­al­ism as such, by more or less exclu­sive­ly look­ing to the pur­port­ed needs of cap­i­tal­ism, these the­o­rists end­ed up in a kind of eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism that made it impos­si­ble to the­o­rize the overde­ter­mi­na­tion of the state.


After the Sec­ond World War, a new set of impe­ri­al­ist the­o­ries took shape. Although in many ways adopt­ing some of the assump­tions of the clas­si­cal the­o­ries, this new body of work began with a rad­i­cal revi­sion of a cen­tral Marx­ist claim.

Marx­ist the­o­rists of impe­ri­al­ism had assumed that “back­wards” coun­tries sub­ject­ed to impe­ri­al­ism were sim­ply at ear­li­er stages of devel­op­ment, and that they would, over time, pro­gres­sive­ly move through all the stages to cap­i­tal­ism. They would come to resem­ble the dom­i­nant social for­ma­tions of North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe, at least in fun­da­men­tal respects. As Karl Marx him­self once explained, “the coun­try that is more devel­oped indus­tri­al­ly only shows, to the less devel­oped, the image of its own future.”13 Of course, we know that Marx’s views on the mat­ter changed, but one can nev­er­the­less find pas­sages that imply impe­ri­al­ism would, for bet­ter or worse, accel­er­ate this tra­jec­to­ry in the colonies.14

By the 1950s and 1960s, such a view was sim­ply unten­able. Most coun­tries in Latin Amer­i­ca, Africa, the Mid­dle East, and East Asia had clear­ly tak­en a path very dif­fer­ent from those in North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe. Even for­mal polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, which most Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries had won in the 19th cen­tu­ry, had not ush­ered in the kind of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment most had expect­ed. A new cohort of the­o­rists, begin­ning with fig­ures like Raul Pre­bisch and Cel­so Fur­ta­do, sought to not only explain why this had hap­pened, but to find solu­tions to the prob­lem of devel­op­ment. Their efforts would cul­mi­nate in what came to be known as “depen­den­cy the­o­ry,” whose most famous ear­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive was Andre Gun­der Frank.15 A par­al­lel cur­rent, called “world sys­tems the­o­ry,” shared many of the same posi­tions, and includ­ed the­o­rists like Immanuel Waller­stein, Ter­ence Hop­kins, and to some extent Samir Amin.16

Of the many the­o­rists that worked with­in the prob­lem­at­ic of depen­den­cy, Frank became the most inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned.17 The devel­op­ment of the wealthy cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, he explained, was not unre­lat­ed to the pover­ty of the poor­er coun­tries. The lat­ter, in fact, was a con­se­quence of the for­mer. Back­ward coun­tries were not “unde­vel­oped,” that is, lan­guish­ing in a kind of retard­ed state, their nor­mal path to cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment blocked. Rather, they were active­ly “under­de­vel­oped” by the devel­oped cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. The devel­op­ment of the “core” and the under­de­vel­op­ment of the “periph­ery” were part of the same glob­al cap­i­tal­ist process.

At the cen­ter of what would become depen­den­cy the­o­ry lay the belief that around the 16th cen­tu­ry a cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem took shape, char­ac­ter­ized by an inter­na­tion­al divi­sion of labor between the core and the periph­ery. In this sys­tem, the for­mer forcibly extract­ed sur­plus­es from the lat­ter, dri­ving the periph­ery into a state of depen­den­cy. Since this was a zero-sum game, in which the “metrop­o­les tend to devel­op” and the “satel­lites to under­de­vel­op,” the only way for­ward was for states to “delink” from the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem.18 Of course, what “delink­ing” would actu­al­ly look like in prac­tice depend­ed on the polit­i­cal per­sua­sion of indi­vid­ual the­o­rists.

Depen­den­cy the­o­ry achieved a kind of hege­mo­ny in the 1970s, play­ing an impor­tant role in social move­ments in the Glob­al South, as well as serv­ing as the basis for major insti­tu­tion­al projects, such as the New Inter­na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Order of the mid-1970s. Yet soon after, the the­o­ry, and Frank’s ver­sion in par­tic­u­lar, came under heavy crit­i­cism.19

Many, though by no means all, of the the­o­rists work­ing in this prob­lem­at­ic adopt­ed rather idio­syn­crat­ic def­i­n­i­tions of cap­i­tal­ism that have very lit­tle to do with Karl Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my.20 Instead of fol­low­ing Marx, who argued that the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion gen­er­ates sur­plus-val­ue by pay­ing work­ers less in wages than the val­ue they gen­er­ate when their labor-pow­er is exploit­ed at the point of pro­duc­tion, some of these the­o­rists, like Frank or Waller­stein, argued that cap­i­tal­ism is basi­cal­ly the trans­fer of income from one part of the world to anoth­er. It is a sta­t­ic, zero-sum game, based pri­mar­i­ly in unequal exchange.

Fur­ther­more, many of its pre­dic­tions were dis­proved by his­tor­i­cal events. Many the­o­rists in this tra­di­tion argued it would be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment of the kind seen in the metrop­o­les to take hold in the Glob­al South, with oth­ers like Frank ini­tial­ly claim­ing this was sim­ply impos­si­ble in the cur­rent world sys­tem. But his­to­ry has shown oth­er­wise. Already in the 1970s, sev­er­al coun­tries in the Glob­al South, such as Tai­wan, Sin­ga­pore, South Korea, Iran, or Brazil, were devel­op­ing quite spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Now, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, we see a whole host of devel­oped cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries out­side the con­ven­tion­al met­ro­pol­i­tan core: India, Chi­na, Turkey, or Thai­land, to name only a few.

Indeed, one of the major lim­i­ta­tions of many of these the­o­ries is that they gen­er­al­ly have dif­fi­cul­ty account­ing for uneven­ness. Accounts like Frank’s homog­e­nize cru­cial dif­fer­ences between states into two gen­er­al cat­e­gories, see­ing a globe divid­ed into core coun­tries and periph­er­al ones. More impor­tant­ly, Frank’s analy­sis fails to account for the fact that indi­vid­ual social for­ma­tions have been marked by extreme uneven­ness.21 In many coun­tries, high­ly advanced cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions exist along­side peas­ant economies, sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, or mas­sive black mar­kets. For exam­ple, the Unit­ed States, the most devel­oped cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my, is also one of the world’s largest agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers.

But one of the key prob­lems with many depen­den­cy the­o­ries, above all Frank’s, was con­fu­sion over the rela­tion­ship between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism.22 In fact, Frank, who was noto­ri­ous­ly vague with his terms, often con­flat­ed them. At some points he sim­ply com­bined the two into the con­cept of “capitalism/imperialism,” which he argued should be seen “essen­tial­ly as a cer­tain kind of rela­tion between the metro­pole or its mem­bers and the periph­ery.”23 “Capitalism/imperialism,” he argued, was the eco­nom­ic exploita­tion of the “under­de­vel­oped periph­ery to the ben­e­fit of the devel­oped metro­pole.”24 Not only did this def­i­n­i­tion do lit­tle to dis­tin­guish it from Frank’s con­cept of cap­i­tal­ism, it made it very hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between dif­fer­ent kinds of impe­ri­al­ism. U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, for Frank, just becomes anoth­er instan­ti­a­tion of the same cen­turies-old rela­tion­ship: “This impe­ri­al­ism is an expres­sion of the entire cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem today. Though dif­fer­ing in tech­ni­cal detail from its fore­run­ners, it remains, espe­cial­ly for the under­de­vel­oped world, essen­tial­ly the same as all pre­vi­ous forms of cap­i­tal­ism-colo­nial­ism-impe­ri­al­ism: the source and sys­tem­iza­tion of exploita­tion and under­de­vel­op­ment.”25

For many work­ing with­in the prob­lem­at­ic of depen­den­cy the­o­ry, impe­ri­al­ism, if the term is even used at all, has sim­ply come to mean the trans­fer of wealth from the periph­ery to the core, or even more broad­ly, the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem itself. From this per­spec­tive, it becomes very hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate impe­ri­al­ism from cap­i­tal­ism, and the two risk becom­ing syn­ony­mous. Despite refin­ing the clas­si­cal the­o­ries, many depen­den­cy the­o­ries have pre­served this core weak­ness.

New Theories

Giv­en the lim­i­ta­tions of both the clas­si­cal and depen­den­cy the­o­ries, new­er accounts have tried to update, or even rad­i­cal­ly rethink, our under­stand­ing of impe­ri­al­ism. Some of these the­o­rists have explic­it­ly reject­ed the ear­li­er the­o­ries. David Har­vey, for exam­ple, has argued that the clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ries not only “do not pro­vide an ade­quate frame­work for con­fronting our con­tem­po­rary con­di­tion,” they were “not ade­quate to their time either.”26 Yet it is a tes­ta­ment to the tenac­i­ty of these old­er ideas that many new accounts, includ­ing Harvey’s own, end up in the very same prob­lem­at­ic.

In his acclaimed 2003 book, The New Impe­ri­al­ism, Har­vey argues that cap­i­tal­ism nec­es­sar­i­ly suf­fers from crises of over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion. One solu­tion for cap­i­tal­ists is to find areas “out­side” of cap­i­tal­ism and make them avail­able to that sur­plus cap­i­tal. This can include geo­graph­i­cal regions not pre­vi­ous­ly open to cap­i­tal, as in Luxemburg’s account, but it can also mean re-open­ing areas that have been closed off. The “out­side,” in oth­er words, can be cre­at­ed in the heart of cap­i­tal­ism. Har­vey calls this process “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion,” which includes every­thing from pry­ing open new mar­kets in the Glob­al South to pri­va­tiz­ing indus­tries in North Amer­i­ca and Europe. This, for him, is the mean­ing of con­tem­po­rary impe­ri­al­ism: a solu­tion to the cri­sis of the 1970s in which states use mas­sive vio­lence to force open areas for sur­plus cap­i­tal.

Although Harvey’s core idea of “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion” sheds con­sid­er­able light on what is com­mon­ly called “neolib­er­al­ism,” it is far too expan­sive. For Har­vey, the term includes the “spec­u­la­tive raid­ing of hedge funds”; the “patent­ing and licens­ing of genet­ic mate­r­i­al, seed, plas­ma,” and oth­er prod­ucts; the “deple­tion of the glob­al envi­ron­men­tal com­mons”; the “com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of cul­tur­al forms, his­to­ries, and intel­lec­tu­al cre­ativ­i­ty,” such as the music industry’s “appro­pri­a­tion and exploita­tion of grass­roots cul­ture and activ­i­ty”; and the “pri­va­ti­za­tion of hith­er­to pub­lic assets (such as uni­ver­si­ties), to say noth­ing of the wave of pri­va­ti­za­tion (of water and pub­lic util­i­ties of all kinds) that has swept the world.”27 In short, “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion” refers to every­thing from dis­pos­sess­ing peas­ants in Nige­ria to fore­clos­ing on the homes of low­er-mid­dle class Amer­i­cans who could not meet their mort­gage pay­ments. What, one may rea­son­ably ask, is not “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion?”

The key prob­lem with this con­cept is not only that it is so expan­sive, but that it is made to include process­es that are in fact quite nor­mal to cap­i­tal­ism. Har­vey is absolute­ly cor­rect to argue that cap­i­tal is lim­it­ed in its abil­i­ty to cre­ate the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for its repro­duc­tion. Thus, state pow­er is often required to help cre­ate, and main­tain, those con­di­tions. But it’s also true that in many cas­es cap­i­tal­ists can cre­ate those con­di­tions on their own, with­out state pow­er. Includ­ing this oth­er set of process­es with­in the same con­cept of “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion” under­mines its use­ful­ness. As Robert Bren­ner argues in his cri­tique of Harvey’s book:

The beat­ing out by agribusi­ness­es of fam­i­ly farms – who have already been liv­ing and dying by max­i­miz­ing prof­its – is an all-too-famil­iar aspect of cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion. It is hard to fath­om why Har­vey would want to assim­i­late this to accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion any more than he would the destruc­tion of fam­i­ly busi­ness­es (small or large) by giant cor­po­ra­tions; like­wise for the loss by Enron work­ers of their pen­sions along with their jobs when the firm went out of busi­ness. It deprives accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion of its sub­stance to treat as the same sort of thing work­ers’ loss of employ­ment through their firm’s bank­rupt­cy, which is a stan­dard result of a well-estab­lished process of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, and the expro­pri­a­tion of peas­ants from their land – in the Eng­lish enclo­sures of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry of through the destruc­tion of the eji­dos in con­tem­po­rary Mex­i­co – which is about cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion.28

In so doing, Har­vey ends up los­ing the speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism, mak­ing it vir­tu­al­ly indis­tin­guish­able from cap­i­tal­ism. By mak­ing this move, Har­vey finds him­self right back with­in the very prob­lem­at­ic from which he tried so hard to escape. Like all the clas­si­cal the­o­ries, his own work basi­cal­ly reduces impe­ri­al­ism to cri­sis the­o­ry, as impe­ri­al­ism is once again regard­ed as a solu­tion to a cri­sis of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Iron­i­cal­ly, Har­vey began his book by attempt­ing to escape eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism. Hop­ing to avoid reduc­ing the state to the econ­o­my, he argues at the out­set that there exist two log­ics of pow­er: the “ter­ri­to­r­i­al” log­ic of state expan­sion, and the “cap­i­tal­ist” log­ic of accu­mu­la­tion. Leav­ing aside the prob­lem of ascrib­ing to the state a sin­gle log­ic, as if it were a mono­lith­ic enti­ty with one invari­able inter­est, Har­vey nev­er real­ly explains the rela­tion­ship between the two log­ics, and in the end, the cap­i­tal­ist log­ic large­ly instru­men­tal­izes the state log­ic in his account. As in the clas­si­cal accounts, the state becomes a kind of a tool wield­ed by cap­i­tal­ists to fur­ther their sin­gu­lar inter­est of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion.

But Har­vey is not alone. Work­ing from a tra­di­tion very dif­fer­ent from Harvey’s, Ellen Meiksins Wood also ends up in the same place. In The Empire of Cap­i­tal, also pub­lished in 2003, Wood sets out to explain the his­tor­i­cal emer­gence of what she calls “cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism.” For Wood, what dis­tin­guish­es cap­i­tal­ism is its pri­ma­ry reliance on eco­nom­ic com­pul­sion to get work­ers to for­feit sur­plus labor, rather than extra-eco­nom­ic coer­cion, as in oth­er soci­eties. In the same way, what dis­tin­guish­es cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism from old­er forms of impe­ri­al­ism is the “pre­dom­i­nance of eco­nom­ic, as dis­tinct from direct ‘extra-eco­nom­ic’ – polit­i­cal, mil­i­tary, judi­cial – coer­cion” in secur­ing the “trans­fer of wealth from the weak­er nations to the stronger nations.”29 Of course, Wood is very quick to point out that this is not to say that cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism nev­er relies on vio­lence, only that it relies pre­dom­i­nant­ly on eco­nom­ic coer­cion, like struc­tur­al adjust­ment poli­cies.

Although in some respects dis­tinct, Wood’s the­o­ry retains the fun­da­men­tal pre­sup­po­si­tions of ear­li­er mod­els. Impe­ri­al­ism

means that sub­or­di­nate economies must be made vul­ner­a­ble to the dic­tates of the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket, by forc­ing them to open their mar­kets to impe­r­i­al cap­i­tal and by means of cer­tain social trans­for­ma­tions – such as, for exam­ple, the trans­for­ma­tion of peas­ants into mar­ket-depen­dent farm­ers, as sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture is replaced by spe­cial­iza­tion in cash crops for the export mar­ket… Bring­ing about such social trans­for­ma­tions – not sim­ply by direct coer­cion but, for instance, by means of loans or aid with strict con­di­tions – has been a major func­tion of cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism since its incep­tion, and the indis­pens­able instru­ment has been the nation state.30

In oth­er words, impe­ri­al­ism is the process through which “impe­r­i­al cap­i­tal” uses the nation-state to force open sub­or­di­nate economies to the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket as a way of trans­fer­ring wealth from the weak­er nations to the stronger nations. Cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism is the point at which impe­ri­al­ism relies pre­dom­i­nant­ly on eco­nom­ic coer­cion, though still draw­ing on extra-eco­nom­ic coer­cion, like war, to real­ize this goal.

As we have seen in oth­er accounts, the rela­tion between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism here again bor­ders on reduc­tion­ism. From the core-periph­ery the­o­ries, Wood bor­rows the idea of impe­ri­al­ism as a uni­fied world sys­tem defined by the trans­fer of wealth from one part of the world to the oth­er. From the clas­si­cal the­o­ries she takes the idea that impe­ri­al­ism is what hap­pens when cap­i­tal, in her account ren­dered as “impe­r­i­al cap­i­tal,” uses the state as an “instru­ment” to real­ize its inter­ests. In all this, the state is once again left under­the­o­rized, and the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism col­laps­es into cap­i­tal­ism.

Inter­est­ing­ly, it is none oth­er than Har­vey who has rec­og­nized this as the crit­i­cal weak­ness of not only Wood’s account, but even his own. “With­in this account,” he writes in a review of Wood’s book, “there lies the prob­lem of how to under­stand the state and, on this point, nei­ther Wood nor I did a very good job (I cov­ered it over in the gener­ic term of a ter­ri­to­r­i­al log­ic of pow­er). Not only do we need a new the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism to match the con­di­tions of our time but we also need a new the­o­ry of the cap­i­tal­ist state.”31

Breaking with Economism

The pri­ma­ry weak­ness of most Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism, then, is pre­cise­ly their ten­den­cy to over­play the causal rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism.

At their most extreme, these the­o­ries sim­ply equate the two. For some, any expan­sion of cap­i­tal beyond nation­al bor­ders is auto­mat­i­cal­ly clas­si­fied as impe­ri­al­ism. For oth­ers impe­ri­al­ism is basi­cal­ly the same as the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem.

But if this is the case, why even use the word impe­ri­al­ism? After all, the con­cept of cap­i­tal already implies its glob­al expan­sion in search of self-val­oriza­tion. Cap­i­tal, in oth­er words, always tries to move wher­ev­er it can find a high­er rate of prof­it. For the same rea­son that a firm might move some of its oper­a­tions from a city to anoth­er region of the same coun­try to turn a high­er prof­it, busi­ness­es might move to oth­er coun­tries. Call­ing nor­mal process­es of cap­i­tal­ism “impe­ri­al­ist” is not only redun­dant, it effaces the speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism.

Oth­er, less extreme views dis­tin­guish impe­ri­al­ism from cap­i­tal­ism, but see the for­mer as imme­di­ate­ly caused by the lat­ter. State inter­ven­tion abroad, for exam­ple, is often said to be at the behest of cap­i­tal. Impe­ri­al­ism exists to real­ize cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests. But if this is the case, then why is it that impe­ri­al­ism so often under­mines the inter­ests of cap­i­tal?

In fact, his­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, the non-cor­re­spon­dence between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism is the norm, not the excep­tion. While some states cer­tain­ly pur­sued impe­ri­al­ist actions because of for­eign invest­ment, raw mate­ri­als, or mar­kets, they also did so because they sought nation­al glo­ry, desired mil­i­tary out­posts, hoped to divert inter­nal social dis­con­tent by turn­ing abroad, believed in spread­ing their alleged­ly enlight­ened civ­i­liza­tion, or sim­ply did not want poten­tial colonies to fall into the hands of rival impe­r­i­al pow­ers.

In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, the alleged high­point of impe­ri­al­ism, Otto von Bis­mar­ck, for exam­ple, admit­ted that he intend­ed to use colonies as bar­gain­ing chips in future nego­ti­a­tions over affairs in Europe, which were always his pri­or­i­ty. Dur­ing the same peri­od, the renewed empha­sis on empire in France was pro­pelled not sim­ply by eco­nom­ic moti­va­tions, but was also a result of France’s humil­i­at­ing defeat in the Fran­co-Pruss­ian War. At the same time, Great Britain, which cer­tain­ly did scour the globe for resources, con­sumers, and invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties, tried to con­trol cer­tain ter­ri­to­ries not for their intrin­sic val­ue, but because they helped to secure the route to India, their prize colony. In short, in every his­tor­i­cal case, impe­ri­al­ism was overde­ter­mined.

It is pre­cise­ly the eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism at the heart of so many Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism that pre­vents us from grasp­ing the overde­ter­mined nature of impe­ri­al­ism. If we want to move beyond this lim­it, we need a the­o­ry that does not see impe­ri­al­ism as mere reflec­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. To do that, we have to reex­am­ine the state.

The State

The state is con­ven­tion­al­ly under­stood as an ensem­ble of appa­ra­tus­es orga­niz­ing polit­i­cal author­i­ty over a ter­ri­to­ry that con­tains a more or less sta­ble pop­u­la­tion.32 Dif­fer­ent states pos­sess dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, with dif­fer­ent func­tions, pro­ce­dures, and rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er.

In social for­ma­tions dom­i­nat­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, most states tend to devel­op insti­tu­tions designed to man­age the expand­ed repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. A whole set of appa­ra­tus­es work to pro­tect pri­vate prop­er­ty, main­tain infra­struc­tures, con­trol the mon­ey sup­ply, medi­ate labor con­flicts, and reg­u­late social repro­duc­tion.

All states, what­ev­er the char­ac­ter of their social for­ma­tion, work to ensure over­all social cohe­sion with­in their ter­ri­to­ries. This means main­tain­ing uni­ty with­in the rul­ing bloc, keep­ing dom­i­nat­ed social forces frag­ment­ed and divid­ed, crush­ing insur­gen­cies, com­bat­ing exter­nal threats, artic­u­lat­ing poten­tial­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry rela­tions between dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion, and man­ag­ing emer­gen­cies – such as depres­sions or nat­ur­al dis­as­ters – that might jeop­ar­dize the soci­ety as a whole. This can be done through a vari­ety of means, through the efforts of many dif­fer­ent state appa­ra­tus­es, and accord­ing to com­pet­ing strate­gies, which is why these moments can often elic­it con­tra­dic­to­ry respons­es.

Indeed, states are not mono­lith­ic. Although many of the insti­tu­tions that com­pose a state may have been cre­at­ed with the same gen­er­al objec­tives, they are struc­tured dif­fer­ent­ly, fol­low dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures, and employ dif­fer­ent strate­gies for resolv­ing prob­lems. In some cas­es, they may end up work­ing at cross-pur­pos­es. In oth­er cas­es, they may even have dif­fer­ent objec­tives regard­ing a spe­cif­ic prob­lem. Con­flicts between, and even with­in, insti­tu­tions, are extreme­ly com­mon­place.

The state is not only com­posed of over­lap­ping, and often com­pet­ing, insti­tu­tions, but it is also a pri­ma­ry site of class strug­gle. Most Marx­ist the­o­rists of impe­ri­al­ism tend to treat the state as either a thing to be used by class­es that stand out­side of it or as an inde­pen­dent sub­ject with its own log­ic perched above the class strug­gles rag­ing in the soci­ety below. By con­trast, the state can be bet­ter under­stood as a rela­tion­ship. Or to be more pre­cise, the state, in the words of Nicos Poulantzas, is the “mate­r­i­al con­den­sa­tion of a rela­tion­ship of forces.”33 This is to say, the state is not only an ensem­ble of appa­ra­tus­es, but that ensem­ble is entire­ly tra­versed by strug­gles between dif­fer­ent social forces. Class strug­gle should not be seen as exter­nal to the state, but as some­thing inscribed in its heart.

Dif­fer­ent social forces con­stant­ly com­pete with one anoth­er with­in the state. These inces­sant strug­gles between dif­fer­ent class­es, and even between dif­fer­ent frac­tions of the same class, across the already con­tra­dic­to­ry insti­tu­tions of the state is pre­cise­ly why states often behave in errat­ic ways. State pol­i­cy is fre­quent­ly the prod­uct of a com­pro­mise between rival, or out­right antag­o­nis­tic, social forces. Dif­fer­ent social forces pur­sue their own inter­ests, dif­fer­ent state insti­tu­tions com­pete with one anoth­er, dif­fer­ent branch­es or lev­els with­in the same appa­ra­tus dis­agree or even work at cross-pur­pos­es.

It should be added that it is pre­cise­ly these strug­gles between social forces that not only deter­mine the bound­aries of state, but what prac­tices, social rela­tions, and insti­tu­tions even get to count as “the state” in the first place. While states con­stant­ly present them­selves as inde­pen­dent, sub­stan­tial enti­ties that behave as dri­ving caus­es, they are only ever effects of rela­tions of force that have been com­bined in the form of the state. The state as such is insep­a­ra­ble from spe­cif­ic con­fig­u­ra­tions of social forces in strug­gle.34

See­ing the state as a rela­tion­ship of forces is cru­cial to refin­ing our under­stand­ing of impe­ri­al­ism. It is pre­cise­ly because the state is so thor­ough­ly rid­dled with con­tra­dic­tions that impe­ri­al­ism often takes such con­tra­dic­to­ry forms. Since the state is tra­versed by strug­gles, dif­fer­ent social forces with­in each of these dis­tinct insti­tu­tions will fight over dif­fer­ent ideas about impe­ri­al­ism.

This is the key to explain­ing why states act in ways that under­mine the inter­ests of cap­i­tal. Cer­tain­ly some fig­ures in the state may be inter­est­ed in using state pow­er to help those cor­po­ra­tions with which they are affil­i­at­ed. But oth­ers may want to use that same pow­er to reshape the globe accord­ing to their world­view, which may end up cut­ting prof­its for some indus­tries. Still oth­ers may sim­ply take a cer­tain action to appease their con­stituents, or shore up allies, even if they know it will be detri­men­tal to U.S. cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests.

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, Don­ald Trump’s recent changes to the Unit­ed States’ Cuba pol­i­cy. Major U.S. busi­ness­es, from air­lines to tech giants, from agribusi­ness­es to the tourism indus­try, have long lob­bied the White House to ease trade restric­tions with Cuba. Trump him­self searched for busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties on the island in 1998, flout­ing U.S. Trea­sury restric­tions. When Barack Oba­ma final­ly eased trade restric­tions with Cuba, busi­ness­es were eager to get a piece of the pie. From a strict­ly eco­nom­ic point of view, then, Trump’s deci­sion to tight­en restric­tions on trade and trav­el makes lit­tle sense. Indeed, it’s direct­ly antag­o­nis­tic to cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests. Trump’s impe­ri­al­ist poli­cies towards Cuba stem not from eco­nom­ic motives, but from a desire to secure the loy­al­ty of old­er, con­ser­v­a­tive, Cuban-Amer­i­can vot­ers, and more impor­tant­ly, to solid­i­fy the sup­port of impor­tant polit­i­cal allies like Mar­co Rubio and Mario Díaz-Balart, espe­cial­ly now that Trump is find­ing him­self increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ed.

But even when rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the dom­i­nant cap­i­tal­ist class­es seem to be in com­plete con­trol, and to share the same gen­er­al objec­tive of expand­ing cap­i­tal­ism, they often rep­re­sent com­pet­ing indus­tries, pro­mote dif­fer­ent strate­gies, and oper­ate in dif­fer­ent state appa­ra­tus­es with dif­fer­ent capac­i­ties. Since the state is not a mono­lith­ic enti­ty, dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions with­in the state, from the Trea­sury to the State Depart­ment to the CIA to the Sen­ate, which are often con­trolled by dif­fer­ent frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc, will often come into con­flict over pol­i­cy. The results are con­tra­dic­to­ry actions. We might think, for exam­ple, of the present U.S. government’s for­eign rela­tions. One day the State Depart­ment ges­tures towards find­ing a set­tle­ment to the Gulf Cri­sis; the next, the Pres­i­dent pub­licly throws his weight behind Sau­di Ara­bia, aggra­vat­ing ten­sions in the region. One day, the Sec­re­tary of State announces that the Unit­ed States is ready to talk with North Korea with­out “pre­con­di­tions,” appar­ent­ly revis­ing the ear­li­er demand that the DPRK com­mit to aban­don­ing its nuclear project as part of nego­ti­a­tions; the next day, the White House con­tra­dicts the ear­li­er mes­sage, assert­ing that “clear­ly right now is not the time” for talks.

Of course, the fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty of con­tra­dic­tions can change. There are his­tor­i­cal moments when one frac­tion of the rul­ing bloc suc­ceeds in assert­ing its hege­mo­ny over all the oth­ers, win­ning the con­sent of the oth­er dom­i­nant social forces. In these cas­es, a giv­en state’s impe­ri­al­ist poli­cies may appear more coher­ent for a time. At the same time, there are moments, as in the Unit­ed States today, where the lev­el of ten­sion among the dom­i­nant social forces is extreme­ly high. Not only is there out­right dis­agree­ment between dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the rul­ing class, there are open con­tra­dic­tions with­in the admin­is­tra­tion itself, as dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions pro­pose wild­ly dif­fer­ent solu­tions to the same cri­sis, pro­duc­ing a high­ly inco­her­ent, even unpre­dictable, impe­ri­al­ism.

Last­ly, states do not exist on their own, but with­in a wider field pop­u­lat­ed by many oth­er states. Not only is each state shot through with con­tra­dic­tions, each state con­fronts well over a hun­dred oth­er equal­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry states. In reach­ing deci­sions, social forces with­in each state have to take into account the actions of social forces in oth­er states, often lead­ing again to very dif­fer­ent strate­gies based on incom­plete knowl­edge. In this way, the plu­ral­i­ty of states across the globe com­pounds the already exist­ing con­tra­dic­tions with­in each one.

No General Theory of Imperialism

In the same text in which he defined the state as the mate­r­i­al con­den­sa­tion of a rela­tion­ship of forces, Poulantzas quick­ly point­ed out the lim­i­ta­tions of state the­o­riz­ing. “For just as there can be no gen­er­al the­o­ry of the econ­o­my (no ‘eco­nom­ic sci­ence’) hav­ing a the­o­ret­i­cal object that remains unchanged through the var­i­ous modes of pro­duc­tion,” he wrote, “so can there be no ‘gen­er­al the­o­ry’ of the state-polit­i­cal (in the sense of a polit­i­cal ‘sci­ence’ or ‘soci­ol­o­gy’) hav­ing a sim­i­lar­ly con­stant object.”35 There is no such thing, in oth­er words, as a the­o­ry of the state tout court.

The same can be said about the the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism. There is no sin­gle, gen­er­al the­o­ry that could simul­ta­ne­ous­ly explain every his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of impe­ri­al­ism, from the Roman Imperi­um to the Mon­gol Empire to the Unit­ed States today. Instead, each the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism is a the­o­ry of a spe­cif­ic con­junc­ture, poten­tial­ly valid only for its moment, but always lim­it­ed and sub­ject to revi­sion.

For this rea­son, abstract­ly reduc­ing impe­ri­al­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, as so many the­o­rists do, actu­al­ly pre­vents us from devel­op­ing con­crete inves­ti­ga­tions into his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic forms of impe­ri­al­ism. For while there is always a rela­tion­ship between impe­ri­al­ism and a spe­cif­ic mode, or more often a com­bi­na­tion, of modes of pro­duc­tion, the pre­cise nature of this rela­tion­ship can­not be deter­mined in advance, dog­mat­i­cal­ly as it were, but can only be stud­ied con­junc­tural­ly.

We can take the exam­ple of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. After World War II, many sec­tors of the U.S. rul­ing bloc argued that the best way to advance the per­ceived inter­ests of the Unit­ed States was for the state to play a dom­i­nant role in cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for the enlarged repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion on a glob­al scale. Of course, U.S. impe­ri­al­ism remained con­tra­dic­to­ry dur­ing this time, appear­ing dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent places, but for many decades, pro­tect­ing, expand­ing, and impos­ing cap­i­tal­ism remained a pri­ma­ry objec­tive. In prac­tice, this meant con­tain­ing, and con­fronting, the social­ist world. It meant mak­ing cer­tain that every­thing was run­ning smooth­ly in the cap­i­tal­ist world. And, most impor­tant­ly, it meant pre­vent­ing new­ly inde­pen­dent coun­tries from grav­i­tat­ing away from cap­i­tal­ism, which often involved resort­ing to extreme vio­lence. Exact­ly how the U.S. did this depend­ed on the spe­cif­ic con­junc­ture. In some cas­es, keep­ing new­ly inde­pen­dent coun­tries with­in the cap­i­tal­ist sphere mean pour­ing mil­lions of dol­lars of aid into “devel­op­ment” pro­grams. In oth­er cas­es, it meant pun­ish­ing them with coups, inva­sions, or unman­age­able debt. Yet in still oth­er cas­es, con­tra­dic­tions with­in the state led U.S. impe­ri­al­ism to devi­ate from this objec­tive alto­geth­er.

The point is that while we can sketch the broad out­lines of the rela­tion­ship between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism in the Unit­ed States for some decades after 1945, that does not allow us to make gen­er­al state­ments about U.S. impe­ri­al­ism across time, and still less about oth­er forms impe­ri­al­ism beyond the Unit­ed States. As this exam­ple shows, decou­pling the con­cept of impe­ri­al­ism from cap­i­tal­ism, then, does not at all mean aban­don­ing the “eco­nom­ic”; it opens the space to devel­op con­crete inquiries that more accu­rate­ly grasp the speci­fici­ty of dif­fer­ent forms of impe­ri­al­ism.

Imperialism as a Relationship

Insist­ing on his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty does not sug­gest that insights gleaned from a care­ful con­junc­tur­al analy­sis may not hold any broad­er val­ue. Indeed, as Poulantzas him­self point­ed out, while there is no gen­er­al the­o­ry of the state as such, “we may, of course, put for­ward gen­er­al the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tions con­cern­ing the State.” But these, he added, “would have the same sta­tus as those of Marx relat­ing to ‘pro­duc­tion in gen­er­al’: that is, they could have no claim to the sta­tus of a gen­er­al the­o­ry of the State.”36 Sim­i­lar­ly, while study­ing spe­cif­ic con­junc­tures, we may make gen­er­al propo­si­tions about impe­ri­al­ism, all while keep­ing in mind their pro­vi­sion­al, lim­it­ed sta­tus as guides to fur­ther research.

Here, I wish to put for­ward just one of these gen­er­al the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tions on impe­ri­al­ism: impe­ri­al­ism is not a thing, but a rela­tion­ship. Indeed, if the state is a rela­tion­ship between social forces, then impe­ri­al­ism could be broad­ly under­stood as a rela­tion­ship between states, though of course the caus­es, mean­ings, and spe­cif­ic forms of these rela­tion­ships vary his­tor­i­cal­ly.

Impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions can include every­thing from sanc­tions to adjust­ing mon­e­tary pol­i­cy to refus­ing to rec­og­nize anoth­er regime to orches­trat­ing coups to mil­i­tary inva­sion to out­right annex­a­tion. Accord­ing­ly, colo­nial­ism should be seen as one form of impe­ri­al­ism, and one that has not entire­ly van­ished despite the anti-colo­nial wave of the 1960s and 1970s. By the same token, what is some­times called “neo-colo­nial­ism” refers to a cat­e­go­ry of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships that do not involve ter­ri­to­r­i­al annex­a­tion, but are based on oth­er forms.37

There is often a ten­den­cy, among the­o­rists and his­to­ri­ans alike, to treat these dif­fer­ent forms of impe­ri­al­ism as stages. The out­right annex­a­tion of colo­nial­ism is sup­posed to be suc­ceed­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly by the more sub­tle forms of coer­cion grouped under “neo-colo­nial­ism.” Instead, we should think of all these dif­fer­ent forms as part of an impe­ri­al­ist reper­toire avail­able to dom­i­nant social forces with­in states.38 In some cas­es, states may pur­sue one form of impe­ri­al­ism; in oth­er cas­es, they may shift to anoth­er form. Of course, while the social forces with the pow­er to shape impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions can pur­sue dif­fer­ent forms of impe­ri­al­ism, they can­not do what­ev­er they wish. These forces must oper­ate with­in a cer­tain field of pos­si­bil­i­ty nec­es­sar­i­ly cir­cum­scribed by a wide range of fac­tors, such as the lev­el of resis­tance in the poli­ty sub­ject­ed to impe­ri­al­ism, avail­abil­i­ty of local col­lab­o­ra­tors, the bal­ance of forces at home, the his­to­ry of the region, or the par­tic­u­lar state’s stand­ing in the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem. But with­in this field of pos­si­bil­i­ty, there are almost always choic­es.

As many his­to­ri­ans of impe­ri­al­ism have shown, this is how empires actu­al­ly oper­at­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly. In some cas­es, they pushed for out­right annex­a­tion. In oth­ers, they decid­ed that a kind of “infor­mal impe­ri­al­ism” was more effec­tive and less cost­ly.39 The rul­ing class­es of some impe­ri­al­ist states, like the French, were more open to annex­ing ter­ri­to­ries than oth­ers. Those in the Unit­ed States, by con­trast, tend­ed to pre­fer main­tain­ing impe­ri­al­ist con­trol with­out for­mal­ly annex­ing dom­i­nat­ed poli­ties. But in all cas­es, there was debate, often fierce dis­agree­ment, with­in rul­ing class­es over exact­ly how they should pro­ceed. The resul­tant form of impe­ri­al­ism was often a con­fus­ing, ten­u­ous com­pro­mise.

Impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships are nev­er uni­di­rec­tion­al. The peo­ples of dom­i­nat­ed states can have an enor­mous impact on the dom­i­nant state. This was espe­cial­ly clear in those his­tor­i­cal cas­es when impe­ri­al­ism took the form of colo­nial annex­a­tion. Some empires, such as the French, cre­at­ed deep bonds between col­o­niz­er and col­o­nized, often with unin­tend­ed con­se­quences for the metro­pole. For that rea­son, colo­nial admin­is­tra­tors fre­quent­ly took great pains to nego­ti­ate all man­ner of bound­aries, espe­cial­ly those hav­ing to do with cit­i­zen­ship, race, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty.40

Polit­i­cal­ly, although one state always assumes the dom­i­nant posi­tion in an impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ship, the social forces active in the dom­i­nat­ed state can always strug­gle to adjust the terms of the rela­tion­ship. In some cas­es, these efforts could not only revise the impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ship, but force dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tions in the metro­pole itself. After all, strug­gles in Alge­ria ulti­mate­ly trig­gered the col­lapse of the French Fourth Repub­lic in the late 1950s, while nation­al lib­er­a­tion in Luso­phone Africa led to rev­o­lu­tion in Por­tu­gal in the mid-1970s. But this dynam­ic can even be per­ceived in non-colo­nial impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions. Viet­namese resis­tance to Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, for exam­ple, caused sub­stan­tial tur­moil in the Unit­ed States, super­charg­ing domes­tic social move­ments, forc­ing Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son not to seek re-elec­tion, and ulti­mate­ly realign­ing polit­i­cal forces in the coun­try.

Imperialism Between Capitalist Countries

Today, when most peo­ple think of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships, they gen­er­al­ly imag­ine rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion between North Amer­i­can and West­ern Euro­pean coun­tries and those in the Glob­al South. That asso­ci­a­tion is so pro­nounced that impe­ri­al­ism is often ren­dered syn­ony­mous with “West­ern” impe­ri­al­ism, or even just U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. There are obvi­ous rea­sons to fore­ground these impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions. For much of the 19th and 20th cen­turies, most of the globe was dom­i­nat­ed by a hand­ful of impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers. The his­to­ry of their rela­tion­ships with the rest of the world is a cat­a­logue of the most extreme bar­barism: legal dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism, sex­u­al vio­lence, polit­i­cal ter­ror, forced labor, mas­sive pop­u­la­tion trans­fers, the uni­lat­er­al restruc­tur­ing of local economies, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, planned star­va­tion, death camps, and geno­cide. The long strug­gle against these pow­ers, espe­cial­ly the Euro­pean empires, is the sin­gle most impor­tant devel­op­ment in glob­al his­to­ry since the Sec­ond World War.

But while it is essen­tial to focus on this set of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions, there is a ten­den­cy to lim­it impe­ri­al­ism exclu­sive­ly to “West­ern” dom­i­na­tion of the world. This has the unin­tend­ed effect of obscur­ing oth­er kinds of rela­tions that are indis­pens­able to devel­op­ing a more robust the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism, and by exten­sion, a more effec­tive anti-impe­ri­al­ist pol­i­tics.

To begin with, defin­ing impe­ri­al­ism exclu­sive­ly as rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion between the “West” and the Glob­al South ignores very real con­tra­dic­tions between the impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries of North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe. This is exac­er­bat­ed by the term “West­ern” impe­ri­al­ism, which clumps togeth­er cap­i­tal­ist states with very dif­fer­ent inter­ests and his­to­ries. Indeed, it is now large­ly for­got­ten that impe­ri­al­ism his­tor­i­cal­ly referred to the high­ly antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ships between rival Euro­pean states. After all, the 19th and 20th cen­turies were filled with inter-impe­ri­al­ist wars, with the Sec­ond World War being only the most dead­ly.

After the Sec­ond World War, when the for­mer­ly sharp ten­sions between coun­tries in North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe seemed to sub­side, and when the strug­gles of col­o­nized peo­ples against the Euro­pean empires took cen­ter stage, the idea that impe­ri­al­ism could run between cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries was side­lined. But as Leo Pan­itch and Sam Gindin have point­ed out, post­war rela­tions between the dom­i­nant cap­i­tal­ist states should also be seen as impe­ri­al­ist.41

After the war, many sec­tors of the U.S. rul­ing bloc argued that the Unit­ed States should open­ly exer­cise lead­er­ship over the oth­er cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries of Europe and Japan. Soon after the war, the Unit­ed States used a host of mil­i­tary, finan­cial, and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions to rebuild their economies, shape their poli­cies, and in some cas­es direct­ly inter­vene in their inter­nal affairs. In Great Britain, the U.S. gov­ern­ment demand­ed that Britain lift cur­ren­cy con­trols and return the pound to free inter­na­tion­al trad­ing in exchange for Amer­i­can loans. In France, the Unit­ed States demand­ed the French keep their mar­ket open to Hol­ly­wood films. In the Nether­lands, some ele­ments in the U.S. state pres­sured the Dutch to give up its South­east Asian colonies or for­feit Mar­shall Aid.

But this impe­ri­al­ist arrange­ment was not uni­lat­er­al. Faced with cat­a­stroph­ic destruc­tion, the threat of com­mu­nism, and the need to rebuild their poli­ties, dom­i­nant class­es in many West­ern Euro­pean states wel­comed U.S. sup­port, despite the risks. For a time, most fac­tions of the rul­ing bloc in the Unit­ed States believed it was in their country’s best inter­ests to rebuild West­ern Europe, while most fac­tions of rul­ing blocs in West­ern Euro­pean states felt that their inter­ests could in part be real­ized by allow­ing the Unit­ed States pur­su­ing its own. In this way, the Unit­ed States came to secure hege­mo­ny over the impe­ri­al­ist chain in the cap­i­tal­ist world.

Although the Unit­ed States was clear­ly in charge, it often had to make com­pro­mis­es in order to main­tain its hege­mo­ny. In the imme­di­ate post­war years, for exam­ple, the Unit­ed States was even pres­sured into under­writ­ing West­ern Euro­pean impe­ri­alisms. For exam­ple, although some ele­ments in the U.S. gov­ern­ment opposed the re-col­o­niza­tion of Indochi­na imme­di­ate­ly after the Sec­ond World War, fear­ing that it would plunge the coun­try into the com­mu­nist camp, one of the rea­sons why they changed their mind was because they felt that sup­port­ing French colo­nial­ism abroad was nec­es­sary for guar­an­tee­ing French coop­er­a­tion in rebuild­ing an anti-com­mu­nist Europe.42 To take anoth­er exam­ple, the Unit­ed States reluc­tant­ly backed the dying Por­tuguese Empire in Africa in exchange for use of the Azores as a mil­i­tary out­post.43

At the same time, Euro­pean states could, and did, with­draw sup­port from the Unit­ed States’s own impe­ri­al­ist projects in parts of the world. In the 1960s, for exam­ple, most West­ern Euro­pean gov­ern­ments ques­tioned grow­ing Amer­i­can mil­i­tary involve­ment in Viet­nam. Some, like Charles de Gaulle, pub­licly opposed the Unit­ed States on this point. When Pres­i­dent John­son pres­sured oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries to send troops to Viet­nam, all refused. As the war dragged on, their crit­i­cisms grew more vocal, and the Unit­ed States found itself iso­lat­ed.44

In the 1970s, mass strug­gles at home, a domes­tic cri­sis of legit­i­ma­cy, glob­al eco­nom­ic reces­sion, and a string of defeats abroad weak­ened U.S. hege­mo­ny. In response to the cri­sis, dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the U.S. rul­ing bloc pro­posed com­pet­ing strate­gies to restore U.S. pow­er. When Jim­my Carter’s con­tra­dic­to­ry pol­i­cy of human rights fell short, Ronald Rea­gan chan­neled some of his predecessor’s poli­cies, such as sup­port for the Afghan Mujahideen or the Khmer Rouge, into anoth­er vision. The com­bi­na­tion of repres­sion of domes­tic move­ments, inter­na­tion­al neolib­er­al ini­tia­tives, finan­cial­iza­tion, and a high­ly aggres­sive for­eign pol­i­cy first devel­oped in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca worked for a time to restore U.S. lead­er­ship. The his­to­ry of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism after 1945, in short, has also been the his­to­ry of the U.S. rul­ing class­es’ attempts to rein­vent their hege­mo­ny over oth­er cap­i­tal­ist states.

Imperialism in the Global South

A sec­ond set of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ship that deserve greater atten­tion are those between states in the Glob­al South. For polit­i­cal rea­sons, many social­ists are extreme­ly reluc­tant to spot­light impe­ri­al­ism with­in the Glob­al South. Dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, many rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies believed in the uni­ty of dom­i­nat­ed states and oppressed peo­ples against the old colo­nial pow­ers and U.S. impe­ri­al­ism.45 This was, for exam­ple, the very func­tion of the idea of the “Third World,” which intend­ed to unite an immense swath of human­i­ty behind a com­mon project of lib­er­a­tion.46

Although the notion of a unit­ed Third World played an impor­tant his­tor­i­cal func­tion, it glossed over sig­nif­i­cant con­tra­dic­tions.47 Some Third World states were cap­i­tal­ist, oth­ers social­ist, and still oth­ers tried to find anoth­er devel­op­men­tal­ist path. Some states were pro-Amer­i­can, oth­ers leaned towards the Sovi­et Union, while most tried to play the two super­pow­ers against each oth­er, alter­nat­ing between one and the oth­er. In some states, the dom­i­nant social forces were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in build­ing uni­ty; in oth­ers, they only cared to advance their own inter­ests. Despite paeans to uni­ty, many of these states con­stant­ly jos­tled with each oth­er, their dis­agree­ments at times erupt­ing in vio­lent con­flict. In many cas­es, they behaved in ways that would be very dif­fi­cult not to char­ac­ter­ize as impe­ri­al­ist.

The unpalat­able truth is that 20th-cen­tu­ry his­to­ry is rife with impe­ri­al­ist con­flicts between coun­tries that were them­selves fre­quent­ly sub­ject­ed to impe­ri­al­ist dom­i­na­tion. The most obvi­ous case is of course Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Under the ban­ner of pan-Asian­ism, Japan pro­ceed­ed to dom­i­nate the rest of the region. While Japan­ese forces dealt a dev­as­tat­ing blow to Dutch impe­ri­al­ism in Indone­sia, U.S. impe­ri­al­ism in the Philip­pines, British impe­ri­al­ism in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, and French impe­ri­al­ism in Indochi­na dur­ing World War Two, in the end, Japan imposed its own set of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions on these con­quered ter­ri­to­ries. Armed with the rhetoric of anti-impe­ri­al­ism, the coun­try once forced open by U.S. gun­boats pur­sued some of the most vio­lent forms of impe­ri­al­ist aggres­sion imag­in­able, espe­cial­ly in Korea and Chi­na.

But Japan is not alone, and with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of inde­pen­dent nation-states across the globe since 1945, these kinds of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships with­in the Glob­al South have become wide­spread. In some cas­es, they have even led to out­right war. Recall, for exam­ple, the Sino-Indi­an War of 1962, the Indo-Pak­istani Wars, the Turk­ish inva­sion of Cyprus in 1974, the Indone­sian inva­sion of East Tim­or in 1975, or the Iran-Iraq War, which left around one mil­lion Ira­ni­ans and 500,000 Iraqis dead.

Although U.S. impe­ri­al­ism is rarely absent, con­flicts in the Glob­al South can­not be explained sole­ly in terms of Yan­kee machi­na­tions. Inter-impe­ri­al­ist con­flicts in the Glob­al South have their own dynam­ic, even if they often unfold with­in a wider set of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions. These con­flicts show that con­trary to most assump­tions, impe­ri­al­ism is not only an attribute of dom­i­nant states, but poten­tial­ly, of all states.

Rec­og­niz­ing this fact shapes how we think about anti-impe­ri­al­ism. Lim­it­ing impe­ri­al­ism only to the “West,” or even just the Unit­ed States, tends to obscure the impe­ri­al­ism of those states often com­bat­ting that impe­ri­al­ism. Of course, there are enor­mous dif­fer­ences between, for exam­ple, U.S. and Russ­ian impe­ri­al­ism, which become espe­cial­ly impor­tant when con­sid­er­ing the strug­gles on the ground today, but the fact remains that for those who call them­selves social­ists, the ulti­mate objec­tive must remain the abo­li­tion of both, not the defense of one against the oth­er.

This point must be empha­sized, since there is a ten­den­cy among some on the left today to defend what­ev­er regime oppos­es the Unit­ed States, whether it be Iran, Syr­ia, North Korea, or Rus­sia. The under­ly­ing con­cerns ani­mat­ing this response are often very real: a desire to block the vio­lence of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, a gen­uine com­mit­ment to peace in war-torn regions, or an urgent need to counter most of the domes­tic left, which still tends to implic­it­ly or explic­it­ly sup­port U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. Nev­er­the­less, what­ev­er its moti­va­tions, this kind of anti-impe­ri­al­ism runs the risk of sub­sti­tut­ing antag­o­nis­tic rela­tions between the class­es com­pris­ing a state with the antag­o­nis­tic rela­tions between nation-states. With class­es homog­e­nized, and class strug­gle down­played, or even erased, the sub­ject of lib­er­a­tion becomes the nation-state itself, not the work­ing class­es. At its extreme, this kind of think­ing can lead to sup­port­ing author­i­tar­i­an states found­ed on the destruc­tion of the left and the repres­sion of work­ers’ self-activ­i­ty because they are said to be embark­ing on an autonomous, anti-impe­ri­al­ist path of devel­op­ment in the face of “West­ern” impe­ri­al­ist depre­da­tions.

Just as there are many dif­fer­ent forms of impe­ri­al­ism, there can be many dif­fer­ent forms of anti-impe­ri­al­ism. Some may be social­ist, but his­tor­i­cal­ly, most forms of anti-impe­ri­al­ism have not. After bloody wars against colo­nial­ism, many of these move­ments went on to cre­ate their own nation-states, which in turn formed new impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships, often against their neigh­bors. But even those social­ist vari­eties of anti-impe­ri­al­ism that hoped to even­tu­al­ly abol­ish the entire glob­al chain of impe­ri­al­ism have end­ed up con­struct­ing their own impe­ri­al­ist states.

Socialist Imperialism

In fact, anoth­er cat­e­go­ry of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships that deserves greater atten­tion involves those states that called them­selves social­ist. As with states in social for­ma­tions dom­i­nat­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, social­ist states have his­tor­i­cal­ly exhib­it­ed high­ly ambigu­ous for­eign poli­cies.

The Sovi­et Union is an excel­lent exam­ple. Soon after the Octo­ber rev­o­lu­tion, many Bol­she­viks hoped to foment world rev­o­lu­tion, believ­ing that social­ism had to be a glob­al project. But at the same time, when the rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave began to ebb in the ear­ly 1920s, espe­cial­ly in Europe, the USSR began to pri­or­i­tize sur­vival over rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­na­tion­al­ism. Con­crete­ly, this meant ally­ing with non-social­ist, even anti-com­mu­nist, nation­al­ist bour­geois regimes at the expense of domes­tic com­mu­nist forces. While this may have giv­en the USSR some secu­ri­ty, it also meant aban­don­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in coun­tries like Iran or Turkey to the forces of reac­tion.48

But for decades the USSR was the only major force to assist rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments, espe­cial­ly in the col­o­nized world. The Sovi­et Union gave rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies train­ing, arms, funds, and logis­ti­cal sup­port that proved deci­sive in a num­ber of lib­er­a­tion strug­gles. This ambi­gu­i­ty con­tin­ued into the Sec­ond World War, as the USSR simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sub­si­dized rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments, in Viet­nam, Cuba, the Con­go, or Ango­la, for exam­ple, while also try­ing to cur­ry favor with anti-com­mu­nist regimes, like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt or Sad­dam Hussein’s Iraq, or out­right reac­tionary ones, like the Shah’s Iran.49

The USSR also act­ed in ways that came eeri­ly close to what one might call impe­ri­al­ist. One can men­tion the mil­i­tary inva­sions of the Sovi­et periph­eries in the ear­ly years of the rev­o­lu­tion, the forced ter­ri­to­r­i­al acqui­si­tions in the years sur­round­ing the Sec­ond World War, and Sovi­et hege­mo­ny over many East­ern Euro­pean states after 1945.

After the Sec­ond World War, for exam­ple, the Sovi­et Union found itself in a bit­ter con­flict with the new­ly cre­at­ed Social­ist Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Yugoslavia. Along with Alba­nia, Yugoslavia was the only coun­try in Europe to lib­er­ate itself from Nazi rule with­out the Red Army. As such, Yugoslavia, home to the world’s sec­ond suc­cess­ful social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, remained fierce­ly inde­pen­dent. Its leader Tito had his own plans: he intend­ed to retain his auton­o­my from the USSR even as the world began to polar­ize into the Cold War, unite with Alba­nia and Bul­gar­ia to form a South­ern Slav Fed­er­a­tion, and spread social­ism through­out Europe, begin­ning by aid­ing the Greek com­mu­nists in their civ­il war. Stal­in, how­ev­er, grew impa­tient with Tito’s inde­pen­dence, per­ceived the South­ern Slav fed­er­a­tion as a poten­tial rival source of pow­er, and expressed oppo­si­tion to aid­ing the Greek com­rades. The result was a ter­ri­ble split, with Stal­in eject­ing Yugoslavia from the Com­in­form, levy­ing sanc­tions on the coun­try, and plot­ting regime change. Fear­ing inva­sion from both the US and the USSR, Yugoslavia increas­ing­ly turned to the Glob­al South, ulti­mate­ly host­ing the found­ing con­fer­ence of the Non-Aligned Move­ment.50

As this exam­ple shows, after the war, the USSR came to exert clear dom­i­nance over a host of East­ern Euro­pean states. It should be point­ed out that the USSR’s hege­mo­ny over these social­ist states was always weak­er than the Unit­ed States’ hege­mo­ny over oth­er cap­i­tal­ist states in West­ern Europe and Japan. For while U.S. impe­ri­al­ism was with­out ques­tion immea­sur­ably more vio­lent than that of the Sovi­et Union (let’s not for­get, for exam­ple, that the Unit­ed States dropped more bombs on Laos than all bombs dropped on Europe dur­ing the entire­ty of the Sec­ond World War – tens of thou­sands of these nev­er explod­ed, and con­tin­ue to take lives), the Unit­ed States rarely invad­ed the advanced cap­i­tal­ist states under its lead­er­ship, where­as the USSR repeat­ed­ly inter­vened in East­ern Europe. Recall, for exam­ple, Berlin in 1953, Hun­gary in 1956, and Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1968.

Along­side these inter­ven­tions were a series of out­right splits, between the USSR and Yugoslavia, Alba­nia, and of course Chi­na, which active­ly chal­lenged Sovi­et lead­er­ship of the social­ist world. While there was cer­tain­ly dis­agree­ment with­in the impe­ri­al­ist chain dom­i­nat­ed by the Unit­ed States, espe­cial­ly from fig­ures like Charles de Gaulle, at no point did any state mount a com­pa­ra­bly vig­or­ous chal­lenge to the Unit­ed States’ lead­er­ship, which is a tes­ta­ment to pow­er of U.S. hege­mo­ny.

But the Sovi­et Union is not alone among social­ist states to have engaged in actions that seem to resem­ble com­mon forms of impe­ri­al­ism. The most trou­bling case is the Third Indochi­na War. In the late 1970s, bor­der clash­es between Demo­c­ra­t­ic Kam­puchea and the Social­ist Repub­lic of Viet­nam led to a full-scale Viet­namese inva­sion of Cam­bo­dia in Decem­ber 1979, fol­lowed by a retal­ia­to­ry Chi­nese inva­sion of north­ern Viet­nam some months lat­er. Although the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na (PRC) with­drew, Viet­namese forces for­mal­ly occu­pied Cam­bo­dia for anoth­er decade. Exact fig­ures are still unavail­able, but total casu­al­ties num­bered in the tens of thou­sands.

Events like the Third Indochi­na War have unsur­pris­ing­ly posed an enor­mous chal­lenge to Marx­ists.51 The states that called them­selves social­ist, preached inter­na­tion­al uni­ty, and defined them­selves against cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism went to war with one anoth­er, behav­ing in ways that one would expect from cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. These elec­tive affini­ties force us to seri­ous­ly con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty of “social­ist impe­ri­al­ism.” Although some rad­i­cals today are reluc­tant to admit that social­ism has any­thing to do with impe­ri­al­ism, we need to explain why some anti-impe­ri­al­ist rev­o­lu­tions pro­duced social­ist states that quick­ly pur­sued impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion over oth­er states, lead­ing to blood­shed. Effec­tive anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle depends on it.

The­o­riz­ing social­ist impe­ri­al­ism pos­es a chal­lenge for a num­ber of rea­sons. First, there does not exist a “social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion,” in the same way that one can point to a cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. We are instead deal­ing with social for­ma­tions in tran­si­tion try­ing to artic­u­late, and reorder, a set of dis­tinct and con­tra­dic­to­ry modes of pro­duc­tion. Sec­ond, as with the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, there can be no gen­er­al the­o­ry of social­ist impe­ri­al­ism; it can only be stud­ied with ref­er­ence to very spe­cif­ic con­junc­tures, which is often very dif­fi­cult since the archives that might shed light on these events are hard to access. Third, con­ven­tion­al Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism are of lit­tle use, because by argu­ing that impe­ri­al­ism is deter­mined by cap­i­tal­ism, they can­not explain the aggres­sive behav­iors of non-cap­i­tal­ist states.

In fact, faced with an event like the Third Indochi­na War, inher­it­ed the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism not only offer unsat­is­fy­ing answers, they lead us into dead ends. If one adheres to the clas­si­cal frame­work, one might argue that the Third Indochi­na War was ulti­mate­ly caused by the Unit­ed States, since it was U.S. impe­ri­al­ism that so thor­ough­ly desta­bi­lized the region. But any cur­so­ry study would show that while the effects of the Sec­ond Indochi­na War, or what Amer­i­cans com­mon­ly call the Viet­nam War, played a role, the war’s caus­es are to be found square­ly in devel­op­ments with­in the social­ist coun­tries.

Anoth­er option might be to argue that these actions took place because Cam­bo­dia, Viet­nam, and Chi­na were all actu­al­ly cap­i­tal­ist, or maybe state-cap­i­tal­ist. By pre­serv­ing the deter­min­ist link between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, this approach suc­cess­ful­ly retains the coheren­cy of the the­o­ry, but runs against empir­i­cal real­i­ty. It would be quite a stretch to des­ig­nate as state-cap­i­tal­ist a coun­try like Demo­c­ra­t­ic Kam­puchea, which at times lacked cur­ren­cy, mar­kets, and finan­cial insti­tu­tions of any kind, where the vast major­i­ty of all pro­duc­tion was agri­cul­tur­al, and where most labor was coerced, often in mas­sive plan­ta­tions.

If we want to actu­al­ly under­stand the caus­es of some­thing like the Third Indochi­na War, we need to decou­ple the mech­a­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism and look instead at nation-states: their insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty, the func­tions of their appa­ra­tus­es, the com­plex ways they artic­u­late con­tra­dic­to­ry modes of pro­duc­tion, their artic­u­la­tion with nation­al­ism, the nature of the class strug­gles that tra­verse them, and their rela­tion­ships to one anoth­er.

The Third Indochina War: Antinomies of Anti-Imperialism

The roots of the Third Indochi­na War can be found in the Sino-Sovi­et Split.52 Over the course of the 1960s, rela­tions between the PRC and the USSR dete­ri­o­rat­ed. Mao Zedong, who played an active role in bring­ing the con­flict to a head, charged that the Sovi­et Union’s grow­ing rap­proche­ment with the Unit­ed States was lead­ing the USSR to aban­don the world rev­o­lu­tion.

But for Mao, the strug­gle against the USSR was also a strug­gle against the more mod­er­ate fac­tions with­in his own par­ty. Mao, who had been side­lined after the fail­ure of the Great Leap For­ward, feared that mod­er­ate forces led by Deng Xiaop­ing and Liu Shao­qi were on course to restore cap­i­tal­ism in Chi­na. He there­fore used crit­i­cisms of the Sovi­et Union to com­bat these domes­tic ele­ments. “Oppose revi­sion­ism abroad, pre­vent revi­sion­ism at home,” went one of his slo­gans.

The strug­gle against revi­sion­ism kicked into high gear when Sovi­et Pre­mier Niki­ta Khrushchev was oust­ed in 1964. Mao became intense­ly sus­pi­cious of his own rivals, fear­ing he might be next. Hav­ing lost influ­ence in the par­ty, he came to believe that his only hope of coun­ter­ing the revi­sion­ists in his own coun­try was to turn to the mass­es. Harp­ing on the Sovi­et threat, he fig­ured, could mobi­lize the mass­es out­side nor­mal insti­tu­tion­al chan­nels, which he felt were now stacked against him. In this way, the domes­tic and for­eign strug­gles became fused, such that the high­point of Sino-Sovi­et rival­ry took place at the same time that Mao sought to out­ma­neu­ver his more mod­er­ate rivals.53

The split devel­oped just as the Unit­ed States esca­lat­ed the Sec­ond Indochi­na War, and had an enor­mous effect on the PRC’s atti­tude towards Viet­nam. Rela­tions between Viet­namese and Chi­nese com­mu­nists had been close through­out most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. After 1949, the PRC con­tributed great­ly to Viet­namese lib­er­a­tion against French colo­nial­ism and lat­er U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. Dur­ing the Sec­ond Indochi­na War, Chi­na pro­vid­ed sub­stan­tial aid to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Viet­nam (DRV), sent engi­neers to con­struct vital infra­struc­ture in the North, and dis­patched thou­sands of sol­diers to staff anti-air­craft guns. In 1967, there were an esti­mat­ed 170,000 Chi­nese troops sta­tioned in the North.54

But in the mid-1960s, the USSR, which was ini­tial­ly less sup­port­ive of the Viet­namese com­mu­nists than the PRC, began to make greater over­tures to Viet­nam. Fear­ing the increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion, the PRC began to pres­sure the DRV, which tried to remain neu­tral in the dis­pute, to take a firmer line in sup­port of Chi­na. Ten­sions emerged in May 1968, when the DRV, now led by Le Duan’s fac­tion of the Viet­namese Work­ers’ Par­ty, opened nego­ti­a­tions with the Unit­ed States. The USSR encour­aged the move; the PRC protest­ed vig­or­ous­ly. Mao felt that nego­ti­a­tions meant Viet­nam was grav­i­tat­ing clos­er to the Sovi­et Union, which in turn spelled fur­ther iso­la­tion for Chi­na.

Then, in August 1968, the USSR stunned the world by invad­ing its social­ist ally, Czecho­slo­va­kia. Alarmed, Mao began to see the USSR as the PRC’s pri­ma­ry ene­my. Chi­na had to pre­pare for pos­si­ble war, a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect since the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion left Chi­na in sham­bles. Fears of Sovi­et inva­sion reached a fever pitch in 1969, when Sovi­et and PRC forces engaged in a bloody bor­der war. In that year alone there were over 400 bor­der clash­es, and at one point the USSR even con­sid­ered using nuclear weapons against its social­ist neigh­bor. With Sovi­et troops killing Chi­nese in the north, and the USSR expand­ing its influ­ence in Indochi­na, Mao believed Chi­na, now encir­cled, had to look for allies else­where. He found his answer in Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, who was only too hap­py to exploit the Sino-Sovi­et split.

Rap­proche­ment with the Unit­ed States unsur­pris­ing­ly elicit­ed enor­mous crit­i­cism from the Viet­namese com­mu­nists, even those who con­sid­ered them­selves pro-Chi­nese. Not only was Chi­na rebuild­ing rela­tions with the coun­try that had tak­en mil­lions of lives in South­east Asia, the PRC now attempt­ed to push Viet­nam to accept a less favor­able deal with the Unit­ed States in the very peace nego­ti­a­tions that the Chi­nese had orig­i­nal­ly opposed. Many Viet­namese felt aban­doned.

After the war, an ongo­ing strug­gle between dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the Viet­namese par­ty final­ly led to the purge of the remain­ing pro-Chi­nese ele­ments, solid­i­fy­ing Sovi­et-Viet­namese rela­tions. In the PRC, Mao’s death, the ouster of the Gang of Four, and a realign­ment of social forces her­ald­ed a defin­i­tive shift in for­eign pol­i­cy towards pur­su­ing Chi­nese geopo­lit­i­cal inter­ests at the expense of rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­na­tion­al­ism. Often­times, this meant align­ing with U.S. impe­ri­al­ism: sup­port­ing Augus­to Pinochet’s coup in Chile, back­ing UNITA in the Angolan Civ­il War, and, along­side Pak­istan and the Unit­ed States, aid­ing the Afghan Mujahideen against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Afghanistan.

In this con­text, the PRC inter­pret­ed clos­er rela­tions between Viet­nam and the USSR as an attempt to encir­cle Chi­na. In response, the PRC began to build up ties with the Khmer Rouge in Cam­bo­dia. This in turn led the Viet­namese to feel that Chi­na was using Cam­bo­dia to encir­cle the new­ly-reuni­fied Social­ist Repub­lic of Viet­nam (SRV). Ten­sions were high, but war was not inevitable. Ulti­mate­ly, it was Khmer nation­al­ism, and the SRV’s spe­cif­ic strat­e­gy to con­tain the Khmer Rouge, that led to the com­plete melt­down of social­ist inter­na­tion­al­ism in the region.

Com­mu­nism in much of Asia was heav­i­ly artic­u­lat­ed with nation­al­ism. This was espe­cial­ly the case in Cam­bo­dia, where the Khmer Rouge devel­oped a form of nation­al­ism that was par­tic­u­lar­ly xeno­pho­bic, espe­cial­ly against the Viet­namese.55 This anti-Viet­namese sen­ti­ment had many sources. In the 17th cen­tu­ry, Viet­namese had pushed into the south, eat­ing away at the Khmer empire, which left a bit­ter mem­o­ry for some Khmer nation­al­ists. When the French arrived, they often ele­vat­ed the Viet­namese over oth­ers in Indochi­na, employ­ing them as civ­il ser­vants in colo­nial Cam­bo­dia, much to the resent­ment of the indige­nous Cam­bo­di­ans. In the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry, Viet­namese com­mu­nists took the lead in spread­ing com­mu­nism through­out Indochi­na, which often came with a kind of pater­nal­is­tic “big broth­er” atti­tude. Dur­ing the ear­ly years of the Viet­nam War, the Viet­namese chose to work with the neu­tral­ist Prince Sihanouk in Cam­bo­dia, rather than help­ing the Khmer Rouge launch a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion.

For all these rea­sons, Khmer nation­al­ism was deeply hos­tile to the Viet­namese, and con­flicts between them were fre­quent. Dur­ing the Viet­nam War, it was not uncom­mon for the Khmer Rouge to attack, kill, or steal from allied Viet­namese com­mu­nists. Cam­bo­di­an com­mu­nists who had trained in Viet­nam were purged. Once in pow­er, the Khmer Rouge set about puri­fy­ing the Cam­bo­di­an pop­u­lace. Eth­nic minori­ties were tar­get­ed in par­tic­u­lar, and by the end of the 1970s, near­ly the entire eth­nic Viet­namese pop­u­la­tion in Cam­bo­dia had been exter­mi­nat­ed.

But Khmer nation­al­ism was not only inten­sive, it was also exten­sive. The nation­al­ist state that the Khmer Rouge cre­at­ed was used to expand out­wards. Imme­di­ate­ly after they seized pow­er, the Khmer Rouge tried to win back the south­ern regions of Viet­nam, which lead­ers like Pol Pot claimed were ancient Cam­bo­di­an ter­ri­to­ries. On May 1, 1975, less than 24 hours after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge prompt­ly invad­ed Phu Quoc, the largest island in Viet­nam, claim­ing it as Cam­bo­di­an ter­ri­to­ry. Bor­ders wars, impelled by Khmer irre­den­tism, con­tin­ued through­out the 1970s. After lengthy debates over how best to respond to the Khmer Rouge’s attempts at ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­quest, Viet­namese com­mu­nists ulti­mate­ly decid­ed on a full-scale inva­sion. As jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, they claimed an indige­nous resis­tance group had asked for their sup­port. But once they invad­ed, the Viet­namese took com­plete con­trol of the state, occu­py­ing the coun­try for a decade.

The war broke out pre­cise­ly when Sino-Viet­namese rela­tions were at their worst. Clos­er ties between Viet­nam and the USSR in the late 1970s left Chi­na intense­ly alarmed. Dis­putes over mar­itime bor­ders took an omi­nous tone. The Viet­namese Com­mu­nist Party’s deci­sion to rapid­ly social­ize the South led to a crack­down on eth­nic Chi­nese busi­ness own­ers, which the PRC inter­pret­ed as a racial­ly moti­vat­ed attack on all Chi­nese. In this con­text, Vietnam’s inva­sion of Cam­bo­dia, one of China’s strongest allies, pushed the con­flict over the edge.

In response, the PRC, con­vinced the Viet­namese assault was part of a larg­er Sovi­et con­spir­a­cy to stran­gle Chi­na, invad­ed the north. Although Chi­nese forces soon with­drew, the PRC con­tin­ued to arm the Khmer Rouge, which, also backed by the Unit­ed States, waged guer­ril­la war against the occu­py­ing Viet­namese army. For their part, the Viet­namese forces wield­ed a tight grip dur­ing their occu­pa­tion of Cam­bo­dia, run­ning the state appa­ra­tus­es, restruc­tur­ing the domes­tic econ­o­my, and draw­ing Cam­bo­dia deep­er into Vietnam’s orbit.

The result was a rather hor­rif­ic spec­ta­cle. Three states that had all raised the ban­ner of anti-impe­ri­al­ism against the Unit­ed States were now locked in a war defined by annex­a­tion­ist impuls­es, bor­der dis­putes, inva­sions, retal­ia­to­ry incur­sions, mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion, geopo­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions, block­ades, and eco­nom­ic restruc­tur­ing. Although the war has fad­ed from mem­o­ry, it holds valu­able lessons for us today. The Third Indochi­na War showed that even states in social for­ma­tions not dom­i­nat­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are sus­cep­ti­ble to impe­ri­al­ism. Impe­ri­al­ism, in oth­er words, is a con­stant pos­si­bil­i­ty even in those states that emerged from social­ist move­ments ded­i­cat­ed to anti-impe­ri­al­ism. Social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, the Third Indochi­na War sug­gests, will not auto­mat­i­cal­ly abol­ish impe­ri­al­ism. It can be over­come only through the sys­tem­at­ic, long-term work of thor­ough­ly dis­man­tling states and invent­ing new kinds of social orga­ni­za­tion.

To be sure, rec­og­niz­ing the vari­eties of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tion­ships, and acknowl­edg­ing the exis­tence of some­thing like social­ist impe­ri­al­ism, should not mean reduc­ing them all to the same lev­el. We have to ask how these impe­ri­alisms dif­fer from one anoth­er, why their objec­tives may be dis­tinct, why they change over time, and why some have been, and con­tin­ue to be, so much more destruc­tive than oth­ers. While Chi­nese impe­ri­al­ism, for exam­ple, may have caused many deaths, its vio­lence pales in com­par­i­son to that of the Unit­ed States. In light of cur­rent events, with U.S. spe­cial forces present­ly deployed in 138 coun­tries, and with Don­ald Trump threat­en­ing to unleash nuclear war with North Korea, it is imper­a­tive that we keep this asym­me­try in mind.

The Boundaries of Imperialism?

In crit­i­ciz­ing the eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism of the inher­it­ed the­o­ries, we must also avoid the mis­take of bend­ing the stick too far the oth­er way. Insist­ing on the speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism should not mean treat­ing impe­ri­al­ism as some­thing com­plete­ly autonomous from par­tic­u­lar modes of pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar, nor from a social for­ma­tion in gen­er­al.

To begin with, the state has always been bound up with modes of pro­duc­tion, each present in the other’s repro­duc­tion. In this sense, the state appa­ra­tus­es, and the social forces with­in them, have always engaged in a whole range of activ­i­ties one might call “eco­nom­ic.” In the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, states spon­sor tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, man­age the flow of mon­ey, restruc­ture indus­try, pro­vide train­ing, assist in the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er, shape the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, set the terms of employ­ment, and can even nation­al­ize indus­tries. The same can be said with regard to impe­ri­al­ism: states con­trol mon­e­tary pol­i­cy, tar­iffs, copy­right law, sov­er­eign debt, assis­tance to cor­po­ra­tions abroad, reg­u­la­tion of com­modi­ties cross­ing bor­ders, and so forth. While it is no longer ten­able to argue, as the clas­si­cal the­o­rists once did, that finance cap­i­tal com­pels states to con­quer ter­ri­to­ries abroad, finance, in par­tic­u­lar, remains a fun­da­men­tal aspect of impe­ri­al­ism. Indeed, in our age of sov­er­eign debt crises, as coun­tries like Greece find them­selves indebt­ed to oth­er Euro­pean states, it is clear that finance has come to play a cru­cial role in repro­duc­ing the hier­ar­chi­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion between states.

More impor­tant­ly, the very sep­a­ra­tion between the state and soci­ety should not be under­stood as as an absolute and tran­shis­tor­i­cal divid­ing line between two dis­tinct sub­stances, but rather as a con­struct­ed divi­sion with­in a sin­gle social for­ma­tion. The state, in this view, is not real­ly a sub­stance, but a kind of “struc­tur­al effect.”56 The state may present itself as sep­a­rate, stand­ing above soci­ety, but it is in fact noth­ing but the prod­uct of social rela­tions.

See­ing the state in this way helps us account for the fact that all too often the line between the state and soci­ety blurs. Think, for exam­ple, of how some key func­tions of the state, like pris­ons, are being pri­va­tized today. Much the same can be said about impe­ri­al­ism: the line between impe­ri­al­ism and oth­er social rela­tions is often high­ly flu­id. To take only one case, Tim­o­thy Mitchell has point­ed to the Ara­bi­an Amer­i­can Oil Com­pa­ny (ARAMCO) to high­light the messy bound­aries between the state and pri­vate cap­i­tal­ist firms.57 Today, con­sid­er the fact that impe­ri­al­ist projects often rely on mer­ce­nary armies, NGOs, or oth­er forms of pri­vate gov­er­nance. If we under­stand impe­ri­al­ism today as a hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion­ship between nation-states, where do these enti­ties fit?

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of these bod­ies, insti­tu­tions, and prac­tices raise impor­tant ques­tions, and estab­lish an impor­tant agen­da for research.58 Above all, they point to the need to study the con­stant­ly shift­ing rela­tion­ships between impe­ri­al­ism and oth­er social rela­tions. But their exis­tence does not mean that impe­ri­al­ism does not exist, in the same way that pri­vate pris­ons do not prove that the state has ceased to exist. Deny­ing the exis­tence of the state would be as fool­ish as fetishiz­ing it into sin­gu­lar sub­stance. If the state is ulti­mate­ly a mate­r­i­al con­den­sa­tion of strug­gles, even if it is not sep­a­ra­ble from par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tions of social rela­tions, it nev­er­the­less still des­ig­nates a spe­cif­ic ter­rain of strug­gle. For that rea­son, it is strate­gi­cal­ly imper­a­tive that we pin­point what at a giv­en moment counts as the state, where its bound­aries lie, how it relates to social rela­tions said to stand out­side its bor­ders, and how the sep­a­ra­tion between the state and soci­ety is being repro­duced at that spe­cif­ic con­junc­ture.

The same can be said about impe­ri­al­ism. While we know that impe­ri­al­ism often relies on insti­tu­tions said to lie beyond the state, and while we rec­og­nize that the bound­aries divid­ing it from oth­er social rela­tions are always con­struct­ed, shift­ing, and the prod­uct of strug­gles, it is still nec­es­sary to insist on the speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism as dis­tinct from, say, the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Decou­pling the reduc­tion­ist link between impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, though mak­ing cer­tain not to treat impe­ri­al­ism as a whol­ly autonomous sub­stance, allows us to draw a more accu­rate pic­ture of the present, bet­ter under­stand the speci­fici­ty of dif­fer­ent ter­rains of strug­gle, and pose new ques­tions and open up new fields of research. This kind of work is all the more impor­tant today, as rad­i­cal move­ments are resurg­ing across the globe, includ­ing the Unit­ed States – still the most dan­ger­ous impe­ri­al­ist pow­er on the plan­et. A strong social­ist move­ment in this coun­try is impos­si­ble with­out a firm and unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to over­throw­ing impe­ri­al­ism in all its forms. To do that, how­ev­er, we need a clear­er idea of exact­ly what we are up against. This means detailed inves­ti­ga­tions into the con­crete dimen­sions of con­tem­po­rary impe­ri­al­ism in all its forms. And that means grasp­ing the speci­fici­ty of impe­ri­al­ism, rec­og­niz­ing what it is and what it is not.

  1. John Mil­ios and Dim­itris P. Sotiropou­los, Rethink­ing Impe­ri­al­ism: A Study of Cap­i­tal­ist Rule (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2009), 1-2. 

  2. Leo Pan­itch and Sam Gindin, “Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism and Amer­i­can Empire,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 40 (2004): 7. In this, Pan­itch and Gindin are also joined by Mil­ios and Sotiropou­los and Spy­ros Sakel­laropou­los and Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris. Despite their dif­fer­ences from one anoth­er, all six not only empha­size the need to rethink the state as part of any the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism, they do so through a read­ing of Nicos Poulantzas. The present essay draws heav­i­ly on their insights. See also, Mil­ios and Sotiropou­los, Rethink­ing Impe­ri­al­ism, as well as Spy­ros Sakel­laropou­los and Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris, “From Ter­ri­to­r­i­al to Non­ter­ri­to­r­i­al Cap­i­tal­ist Impe­ri­al­ism: Lenin and the Pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Marx­ist The­o­ry of Impe­ri­al­ism,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism 27, no. 1 (2015): 85-106. 

  3. Although they are relat­ed, the two lev­els of analy­sis pre­sent­ed above – impe­ri­al­ism as a sci­en­tif­ic con­cept intend­ed to explain his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty and impe­ri­al­ism as a polit­i­cal device intend­ed to mobi­lize strug­gles – should be kept sep­a­rate. Con­fus­ing them can lead to either over-politi­ciz­ing the sci­en­tif­ic lev­el, there­by under­min­ing the concept’s abil­i­ty to ade­quate­ly explain real­i­ty, or over-com­pli­cat­ing the polit­i­cal lev­el, there­by under­min­ing the concept’s abil­i­ty to mean­ing­ful­ly inform mass strug­gle. Today, in the Unit­ed States, both sides of the con­cept require fur­ther work. In this essay, I will focus on the first func­tion. As a result, I have been forced to make some deci­sions that might seem unac­cept­able at the polit­i­cal lev­el, but which are nec­es­sary at the sci­en­tif­ic lev­el. First, I have found it nec­es­sary to point to some of the lim­its of ear­li­er the­o­ries, which has meant crit­i­ciz­ing work that has been enor­mous­ly impor­tant for mil­lions of peo­ple fight­ing for their lib­er­a­tion. Sec­ond, I have had to draw atten­tion to oth­er forms of impe­ri­al­ism, like social­ist impe­ri­al­ism, that are often ignored or explained away, rather than con­front­ed direct­ly. Third, for rea­sons of space, I have spent less time dis­cussing those forms of impe­ri­al­ism that are more com­mon­ly stud­ied, and more com­mon­ly under­stood, above all U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. The unfor­tu­nate result is that it may appear to some read­ers that I am down­play­ing the role of con­tem­po­rary U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, or reduc­ing it to the same lev­el as oth­er, less vio­lent impe­ri­alisms. This is course not my inten­tion. I rec­og­nize that the fram­ing of this essay might elic­it con­cern, espe­cial­ly giv­en Pres­i­dent Trump’s recent actions. And yet, I entreat the read­er to con­sid­er what we might learn from main­tain­ing the divi­sion I have spec­i­fied here, and to approach this text not as a pam­phlet or a ral­ly­ing cry, but as sci­en­tif­ic study intend­ed for con­cep­tu­al clar­i­fi­ca­tion. 

  4. J.A. Hob­son, Impe­ri­al­ism: A Study, 1902. 

  5. Gio­van­ni Arrighi, The Geom­e­try of Impe­ri­al­ism: The Lim­its of Hobson’s Par­a­digm, trans. Patrick Camiller (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978), 9-19. 

  6. For overviews of the clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ries, see Wolf­gang J. Momm­sen, The­o­ries of Impe­ri­al­ism, trans­lat­ed by P. S. Fal­la (New York: Ran­dom House, 1980), 29-69; Antho­ny Brew­er, Marx­ist The­o­ries of Impe­ri­al­ism: A Crit­i­cal Sur­vey, 2nd ed. (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1990), 58-135; and espe­cial­ly, Mil­ios and Sotiropou­los, Rethink­ing Impe­ri­al­ism, 7-32. 

  7. Rudolf Hil­fer­d­ing, Finance Cap­i­tal: A Study of the Lat­est Phase of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment, 1910, chap­ter 22. 

  8. Rosa Lux­em­burg, The Accu­mu­la­tion of Cap­i­tal, 1913, chap­ter 26. 

  9. See Karl Kaut­sky, “Ultra-impe­ri­al­ism,” Sep­tem­ber 1914. 

  10. John Willough­by, Cap­i­tal­ist Impe­ri­al­ism, Cri­sis and the State (Chur, Switzer­land: Har­wood Aca­d­e­m­ic Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 8. 

  11. Cit­ed in Claude Ser­fati, “Impe­ri­al­ism in Con­text: The Case of France,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 23, no. 2 (2015): 55. 

  12. For a use­ful attempt to recov­er this aspect of Lenin’s thought, see Sakel­laropou­los and Sotiris, “From Ter­ri­to­r­i­al to Non­ter­ri­to­r­i­al Cap­i­tal­ist Impe­ri­al­ism.” 

  13. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 1867, Pref­ace to the First Ger­man Edi­tion

  14. For more on this ques­tion, see Aijaz Ahmad, “Marx on India: A Clar­i­fi­ca­tion” in In The­o­ry (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1992), 221-42; Kol­ja Lind­ner, “Marx’s Euro­cen­trism: Post­colo­nial Stud­ies and Marx Schol­ar­ship,” Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 161 (May-June 2010): 27-41; Kevin Ander­son, Marx at the Mar­gins: Nation­al­ism, Eth­nic­i­ty, and Non-West­ern Soci­eties (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2016). 

  15. This is by no means an exhaus­tive list. For a crit­i­cal overview of some of the most rec­og­nized fig­ures work­ing in this prob­lem­at­ic, see Mil­ios and Sotiropou­los, Rethink­ing Impe­ri­al­ism, chap­ter 2, and Brew­er, Marx­ist The­o­ries, chap­ter 8. 

  16. The most con­cise overview of world sys­tems the­o­ry is Immanuel Waller­stein, World-Sys­tems Analy­sis: An Intro­duc­tion (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004). 

  17. The most con­cise pre­sen­ta­tion of Frank’s ear­ly posi­tion can be found in “The Devel­op­ment of Under­de­vel­op­ment,” Month­ly Review 18, no. 4 (Sep­tem­ber 1966): 17-31. See also Cap­i­tal­ism and Under­de­vel­op­ment in Latin Amer­i­ca: His­tor­i­cal Stud­ies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2009 [1967]); Latin Amer­i­ca: Under­de­vel­op­ment or Rev­o­lu­tion: Essays on the Devel­op­ment of Under­de­vel­op­ment and the Imme­di­ate Ene­my (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2009 [1969]); and On Cap­i­tal­ist Under­de­vel­op­ment (Bom­bay: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1982 [1975]). 

  18. Frank, “The Devel­op­ment of Under­de­vel­op­ment,” 23. 

  19. For a con­cise overview of the gen­er­al crit­i­cisms of depen­den­cy the­o­ry, see Col­in Leys, “Under­de­vel­op­ment and Depen­den­cy: Crit­i­cal Notes,” Jour­nal of Con­tem­po­rary Asia 7, no. 1 (1977): 92-107. 

  20. Robert Bren­ner, “The Ori­gins of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment: A Cri­tique of Neo-Smithi­an Marx­ism,” New Left Review 104 (July-August 1977): 25-92. 

  21. To be fair, Frank did argue that the core-periph­ery rela­tion was repli­cat­ed in each state. As he once put it, with his char­ac­ter­is­tic ter­mi­no­log­i­cal ambi­gu­i­ty, “Capitalism’s essen­tial inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion between the exploit­ing and exploit­ed appears with­in nations no less than between them. And imperialism’s con­se­quent essen­tial struc­ture of the exploita­tive rela­tions between the devel­op­ing metrop­o­lis and the under­de­vel­op­ing periph­ery is par­tial­ly dupli­cat­ed with­in each soci­ety, each nation-state, and indeed with­in their regions and sec­tors.” Frank, Latin Amer­i­ca and Under­de­vel­op­ment, 227. But as Ernesto Laclau point­ed out in his famous crit­i­cism of Frank, this approach is not only too schemat­ic, but trades in extreme­ly impre­cise con­cepts; see Laclau, “Feu­dal­ism and Cap­i­tal­ism in Latin Amer­i­ca,” in Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1977). 

  22. Mur­ray Noo­nan, “Marx­ist The­o­ries of Impe­ri­al­ism: Evo­lu­tion of a Con­cept” (Ph.D. diss., Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­si­ty, 2010), chap­ter 4. 

  23. Frank, On Cap­i­tal­ist Under­de­vel­op­ment, 56. 

  24. Ibid., 72. 

  25. Ibid., 57. 

  26. David Har­vey, “In What Ways Is “The New Impe­ri­al­ism” Real­ly New?” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 15, no. 3 (Sep­tem­ber 2007): 58-59. 

  27. David Har­vey, The New Impe­ri­al­ism (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003), 147-48. 

  28. Robert Bren­ner, “What is, and What is Not, Impe­ri­al­ism?” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 15, no. 4 (2006): 101. 

  29. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Cap­i­tal (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2003), 4. 

  30. Ibid., 20-21. 

  31. Har­vey, “In What Ways Is “The New Impe­ri­al­ism” Real­ly New?” 67. 

  32. Bob Jes­sop, The State: Past, Present, Future (Cam­bridge: Poli­ty, 2016). 

  33. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978), 128. 

  34. Tim­o­thy Mitchell, “The Lim­its of the State: Beyond Sta­tist Approach­es and Their Crit­ics,” The Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Review 85, no. 1 (March 1991): 77-96. I would like to thank Patrick King for devel­op­ing this insight. 

  35. Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, 19. 

  36. Ibid. 20. 

  37. For the ori­gins of the term, see Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colo­nial­ism: The Last Stage of Impe­ri­al­ism (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1966). 

  38. For the idea of a “reper­toire of pow­er,” see Jane Bur­bank and Fred­er­ick Coop­er, Empires in World His­to­ry: Pow­er and the Pol­i­tics of Dif­fer­ence (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010), 16. 

  39. The clas­sic account is John Gal­lagher and Ronald Robin­son, “The Impe­ri­al­ism of Free Trade,” The Eco­nom­ic His­to­ry Review, New Series, 6, no. 1 (1953): 1-15. 

  40. For a few exam­ples, see Ann Lau­ra Stol­er, Race and the Edu­ca­tion of Desire (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), Tim­o­thy Mitchell, Colonis­ing Egypt (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007), and San­jay Seth, Sub­ject Lessons: The West­ern Edu­ca­tion of Colo­nial India (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008). 

  41. Leo Pan­itch and Sam Gindin, The Mak­ing of Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism: The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Amer­i­can Empire (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2012). Peter Gowan also empha­sizes impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions between advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, though from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. See espe­cial­ly, The Glob­al Gam­ble: Washington’s Faus­t­ian Bid for World Dom­i­nance (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1990). 

  42. Mark Atwood Lawrence, Europe and the Amer­i­can Com­mit­ment to War in Viet­nam (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005). 

  43. Luís Nuno Rodrigues, “The Unit­ed States and Por­tuguese Decol­o­niza­tion,” Por­tuguese Stud­ies 20, no. 2 (2013): 164-85. 

  44. To be sure, the crit­i­cisms were almost nev­er root­ed in gen­uine sup­port for Viet­namese lib­er­a­tion, but the ten­sions were nev­er­the­less sharp. Fredrik Logevall, “The Amer­i­can Effort to Draw Euro­pean States into the War,” in La Guerre du Viet­nam et l’Europe, eds. Christo­pher Goscha and Mau­rice Vaïsse (Brus­sels: Bruy­lant, 2003), 3-16. 

  45. There was, of course, fierce com­pe­ti­tion between nation-states, espe­cial­ly Chi­na and the USSR, to deter­mine who would lead the glob­al strug­gle against impe­ri­al­ism. See, Jere­my Fried­man, Shad­ow Cold War: Sino-Sovi­et Com­pe­ti­tion for the Third World (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2015). 

  46. Vijay Prashad, The Dark­er Nations: A People’s His­to­ry of the Third World (New Del­hi: Left­word, 2007). 

  47. Aji­az Ahmad, “Three Worlds The­o­ry: End of a Debate” in In The­o­ry, 287-318. 

  48. Demetrio Boer­sner, The Bol­she­viks and the Nation­al and Colo­nial Ques­tion, 1917-1928 (Gene­va: Librarie E. Droz, 1957). 

  49. For the Sovi­et Union’s chang­ing rela­tions to the “Third World,” see Odd Arne Wes­t­ad, The Glob­al Cold War: Third World Inter­ven­tions and the Mak­ing of Our Times (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), chap­ters 5-10. 

  50. Rin­na Kul­laa, Non-Align­ment and its Ori­gins in Cold War Europe: Yugoslavia, Fin­land and the Sovi­et Chal­lenge (Lon­don: I.B. Tau­rus, 2012), chap­ter 2. 

  51. Indeed, the Third Indochi­na War prompt­ed Bene­dict Ander­son to under­take his famous study of nation­al­ism, Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1983). 

  52. The fol­low­ing account draws on Odd Arne Wes­t­ad and Sophie Quinn-Judge, eds., The Third Indochi­na War: Con­flict between Chi­na, Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia, 1972-79 (New York: Rout­ledge, 2006). 

  53. Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Sovi­et Split: Cold War in the Com­mu­nist World (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008). 

  54. Chen Jian, “China’s Involve­ment in the Viet­nam War, 1964-69,” The Chi­na Quar­ter­ly, no. 142 (June 1995): 356-87. 

  55. Grant Evans and Kelvin Row­ley, Red Broth­er­hood at War: Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos since 1975 (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1990), 81-114. 

  56. Mitchell, “The Lim­its of the State.” 

  57. Ibid., 89 

  58. Hei­de Ger­sten­berg­er, “The His­tor­i­cal Con­sti­tu­tion of the Polit­i­cal Forms of Cap­i­tal­ism,” Antipode 43, no. 1 (2011): 77-79. 

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.