New Socialist Magazine, Imperialism Today – By David Mcnally

Imperialism Today

“The marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan.” With those words, U.S. General James Mattis recently encapsulated the very essence of modern imperialism. Yet, no mainstream media outlet used that term to describe the general’s words. And there is a simple reason for that: whoever truly understands the meaning of imperialism is likely to be deeply skeptical about claims by western governments that they act in defense of freedom and civilization. That’s why serious discussion of imperialism happens in the pages of magazines like New Socialist.

At its source, the term imperialism refers to the idea of empire, to the conquest of extensive areas by a particular state. The ancient Roman empire which contained most of Europe might then be described as a form of imperialism. However, most commentators typically reserve the term for the modern empires created in the second half of the 19th century. And they do so for two important reasons. First, only in the epoch of capitalism do we get a truly worldwide system of imperialism. And, secondly, only with capitalism does imperialism become an absolutely inherent part of the way the economy functions.

Let’s start with the first point, the global reach of empire. Between 1875 and 1915, most of the world outside Europe was divided into territories ruled by one of the major capitalist states: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan and the U.S. The whole of Africa and most of the Pacific regions were seized, joining earlier colonial conquests in Asia and Latin America. During these years, Britain increased its empire by four million square miles, France by 3.5 million, Germany, Belgium and Italy by about one million each. For the first time in world history, it could be said that there existed a global network of empires, or what has been called the system of classical imperialism.

But why did this take place during the 40 years between 1875 and the outbreak of the First World War? To answer that, we need to look at the economic dynamics driving the quest for empire.

In a series of pioneering works, such socialist writers as Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin and V. I. Lenin sought to develop a theoretical account of classical imperialism. All three noted that, at the same time they were rushing to conquer territories, the major capitalist economies were undergoing two profound changes: first, the transition from small-scale, competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism based on giant corporations and, second, the emergence of large-scale foreign investment by these monopolies. Their theories of imperialism were designed to account for how the growth of modern empire was linked to these trends.

Despite important differences of emphasis, these Marxist analysts all agreed that capitalist firms were outgrowing their national boundaries. For a significant period of time, they argued, most companies had comfortably operated within the markets of a single major country. But, because competition involves firms gobbling up their rivals and making massive investment in new technologies, larger corporations need larger markets if they are to turn a profit. As a result, huge monopoly corporations were increasingly investing beyond the boundaries of the countries in which they were based. Capitalism was breaking out of national boundaries.

The strength of these analyses is that they saw imperialism as something inherent in capitalism at a certain stage of development. Rather than an aggressive policy that might be altered with a change of government, imperialism was understood to be a necessary feature of capitalist development. Yet, while grasping the necessity of imperialism, some of these accounts erred with respect to specifics.

For instance, some socialist critics, particularly Lenin, speculated that the capital flowing outside of national boundaries was pouring into the colonized world. Yet, that was clearly an incorrect judgment. All the evidence shows that, just like today, the overwhelming bulk of foreign investment went from one part of the developed capitalist world to another. Territories outside Europe and North America were largely seized as sources of raw materials – rubber, minerals, oil and the like – rather than as outlets for industrial investments. Imperialism was more about exploiting natural resources and cheap labour, than it was about building steel, chemical and automobile industries in the colonial world.

So, classical imperialism entailed the emergence of giant corporations heavily involved in competition over foreign markets; the growth of foreign investment by these same monopoly firms; and a mad scramble to conquer territories that might be sources of cheap raw materials.


The atrocities committed in this scramble for territory are mind-boggling. Annexing a great chunk of Africa, King Leopold of Belgium used kidnapping, slavery and mass murder in order to force Africans to collect rubber from the rain forests of the Congo. When tribes failed to submit, Leopold’s troops slaughtered them, leaving severed heads and decaying bodies as a message to others. By these methods, in combination with starvation, disease and over-work, 10 million Africans perished in Belgian-controlled parts of Africa between 1880 and 1920.

What is especially nauseating is that there was nothing exceptional about the human destruction carried out by Leopold. In France’s colonies in equatorial Africa, the population decline in the rubber-rich forest areas was also on the order of 50 per cent. During this same period, U.S. troops in the Philippines massacred 20,000 anti-colonial rebels, burned villages and tortured prisoners in a crusade in which 200,000 Filipinos perished.

This sort of butchery could be sustained only because of the racist ideology with which the imperialists were imbued. Writing to the Foreign Office in 1904, for instance, Sir Charles Elliot, Commissioner for Britain’s East African Protectorate told his superiors: “There can be no doubt that the Masai and many other tribes must go under. It is a prospect I view with equanimity and a clear conscience.” And it was racism that cleansed such consciences. As 40 million black Africans were brought under British domination, Cecil Rhodes could console himself that “the British were the best race to rule the world.”

Imbued with notions of white supremacy, these representatives of imperialism could countenance the slaughter of millions throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Slavery, artificial famines, imperial plunder and mass death were all acceptable – so long as they happened to non-white peoples.

Imperialism And War

As capitalist competition became more international in character, it also became more military, since imperialist powers needed vast armies and navies to protect their empires from rivals. For rising capitalist states, militarism was often the key to empire. In fact, the First World War broke out largely as a result of intense rivalry between the older industrial powers, Britain and France, and the most powerful newcomer, Germany, whose empire was relatively minimal. As many critics have noted, the slaughter of world war was largely about an attempt to re-divide the globe among the imperial powers.

Yet, the “great war” of 1914-19 did not settle matters. German capitalism bristled under its defeat and the war reparations it was required to pay. When world depression arrived in 1929, tensions became more profound; a mere decade later another global conflagration broke out.

The devastating impact of two world wars fought largely in Europe was to provide an enormous opportunity to another capitalist power: the United States. While cities and factories were bombed across Europe and millions killed, the U.S. emerged largely unscathed. Its industrial power was now greater than that of any European state. Consequently, after 1945, a new form of American-based imperialism emerged.

American Imperialism

This new imperialism was not founded on direct military and political control of other parts of the world. In fact, the U.S. saw advantages in letting the countries of the colonial world de-colonize and declare political independence. For American capitalism was now intent on dominating the world economy through a new network of multinational corporations and global agencies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, designed to protect and support them.

Of course, military force was always central to this project. What the U.S. claimed, however, was that its vast weaponry was designed to contain expansion by the former Soviet Union. This was the rationale it used for intervention in places such as Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Yet, while it clearly did want to contain the USSR, American imperialism had a greater overriding objective: keeping the world “safe” for U.S. business. Thus, despite the decline and disappearance of the Soviet Union, American military intervention has never ceased.

In the mid-1970s, Rapid Deployment Forces were created with the capability to quickly invade any country that threatened U.S. business assets or interests. Since then, the U.S. military has intervened in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, just to name some of the more prominent examples. American military doctrine is increasingly based on the need to use force to topple governments in the Third World that it perceives as a threat to U.S. capitalism.

But the U.S. has also developed new economic weapons for disciplining and controlling other nations. Beginning with the global economic slowdown of the early 1980s, it has used emergency lending to poor nations, organized by the IMF and World Bank, as a way of more or less directly dictating their policies toward foreign investment, banking and spending on social programs.

The key weapon here is the IMF-sponsored Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Under a SAP, an indebted country is required to open itself to foreign investment and ownership, privatize government enterprises, eliminate subsidies on the prices of foods like bread and rice, and cut spending on health, education and other social services. These programs thus further the control of western capitalism over poor countries while simultaneously impoverishing whole sections of their population. A sort of neo-colonial control is established by the IMF and World Bank. In fact, even as major a country as India has been forced to accept a situation where IMF officials effectively write the country’s budget documents.

Canada: Partner To Imperialism

When we discuss modern imperialism, there is too often a tendency for some to point all fingers at the United States and to let countries like Canada off the hook. Some critics even suggest that Canada is hostile to U.S. interests.

Arguments like this misunderstand the role of countries that are junior partners in imperialism. It is true that Canada is not a major imperial power. But its history – and that of its ruling class – is entirely bound up with the history of empire. Beginning as an outpost of British colonialism, Canada migrated opportunistically into the American camp during the 20th century. Today, Canadian banks and corporations have worldwide investments; Canada is integrated into U.S. military operations; and this country is a member of the G-8 body which brings together the world’s eight most powerful nations. Canada has also been host to G-8 meetings and to the Summit of the Americas last April.

The Canadian ruling class – from the Royal Bank, to Nortel, Seagrams and Magna International – profits immensely from its close relationship with U.S. capital and the American state. Canada’s ruling class thus has shared interests with U.S. big business. That’s why Canada is an active and eager participant in U.S. military actions from Iraq to Afghanistan. Canadian capital is, in short, a partner in imperialism, even if it might be said to be a junior one.

Globalization And War On The South

The focus of imperialism today, organized through the IMF, World Bank and western military alliances, is on controlling the peoples of the Third World, or what is sometimes referred to as the South. As capitalist globalization worsens the inequalities between rich and poor, as it breeds discontent with western domination, the world’s rulers in places like Washington, London and Ottawa have devised a whole series of strategies for suppressing opposition from the South.

In 1988, for instance, the U.S. Presidential Commission on Long-Term Strategy predicted that the main threat to American interests would henceforth come from the Third World. Since states and movements in these countries could not possibly match the weaponry of the West, American strategists suggested that they should prepare for “low-intensity conflict” in which the enemy “is more or less omnipresent and unlikely ever to surrender.” These kinds of conflicts with states and movements in the South would have to be seen not as “transient and isolated crises,” but as “permanent.”

This doctrine is now being enacted in the war on Afghanistan. Several documents inside the Bush administration have referred to this as an “infinite” war. The Observer newspaper in Britain reports that U.S. officials describe it as a conflict “without constraint of either time or geography.” The U.S. and its allies claim the right to intervene anywhere, anytime – and they claim this right for eternity. Alongside the globalization of capital, then, we now have the globalization of war.

And that’s why the word globalization can be so misleading. What we’ve been witnessing over the last 20 years or so is the latest stage of imperialism. The thousands of civilians destroyed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan are its most recent victims. As we seek to build an anti-war movement to stop that slaughter, we need to recognize the importance of building opposition to imperialism at the same time.


David McNally is an editorial associate of New Socialist.