England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Imperialism: Explaining the age of disorder

By Paul Gerrard, Socialist Alternative Greater Manchester

We are living through a new age of disorder – a time of growing instability and insecurity. Internationally, so-called ‘rule-governed behaviour’ has disappeared: Israel has been ignoring the United Nations’ rulings on illegal settlements for decades, now its war-crazed ultra right-wing government angrily demands the resignation of the UN General Secretary while it continues to pulverise Gaza. The internationally agreed ‘rules of engagement’ – no attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure, no abductions – are buried in Ukraine’s snow-clad mass graves and under the rubble of Gaza City.

A wave of military coups has swept Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea as governments wrestle with jihadist Islamist insurgencies. In several countries French troops are told to leave, to be replaced by Russian-backed Wagner mercenaries.

How are we to make sense of this new age of disorder? Socialist Alternative has highlighted the importance of inter-imperialist conflict as a key part of the current world political situation. Geopolitical tensions have broken out into open warfare in Ukraine, and aggravated national tensions, as with the horrifying situation in Israel-Palestine.

What do we understand by imperialism? The role of imperialist powers is sometimes laid bare through, for instance, interference by the US to overthrow elected governments, such as in Chile 1973, or Venezuela over the last twenty years. Or the examples of outright invasions such as US and NATO in Iraq in 2003, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine currently.

Many of these actions might seem like simply reactionary or arbitrary or stupid policy decisions by the ruling class. Later, some of these actions are no doubt a matter of regret and inconvenience for the present-day capitalists who have to live with the consequences. But for us, the point is that they do not merely reflect a reactionary mind-set, but reflect the real interests of the ruling classes of different nation states. A decision may be made today, tomorrow or in three months’ time but the decision itself is a product of the system of world relations – and the class struggle – at any time and not just due to prejudice or ideology.

What Marxists mean by imperialism is a particular stage in the economic development of capitalism, characterised by a small number of huge multinational companies trading across the globe, the exploitation of under-developed countries, and wars for control of global resources and supply chains.

‘The highest stage of capitalism’

This feature of modern capitalism was explained by the Russian Marxist and revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. In his work ‘Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism’. This work, written in the midst of the imperialist First World War which devastated Europe, analysed the tremendous concentration of production in later capitalism and the key role of banks in providing finance for expansion, which increasingly gave them a controlling interest in large corporations. Astonishingly, several of those companies he refers to, such as GEC (General Electric Company) and banks such as Deutsche Bank, are still to this day key players in the world economy.

These large corporations expand and consolidate through acquisitions of, and share-holdings in, other companies so that they generate more capital than can profitably be invested in their home markets. From exporting goods to foreign markets they increasingly turn to exporting capital, investing in other countries where technology is less advanced, or there are large deposits of oil or minerals, or wages are lower, therefore allowing for higher profit margins. Capitalist governments, tied by a thousand threads to these powerful corporations, ultimately defend the interests of these companies, both against rival companies and other governments representing their own leading companies.

This explains the rivalries between imperialist powers such as Britain, Germany and others, in the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, which gave an early indication of the conflict which would burst out in World War I. In that war, the leading imperialist countries demanded the involvement of minor powers on ‘their’ side. Russia, which had been the recipient of huge investment by British, French and Belgian capital, entered the war on the side of Britain. On the other hand the Ottoman empire, which had been a target of German investment, fought for Germany in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Lenin commented on the all-encompassing character of this process: “the characteristic feature of this period is the final partition of the globe – not in the sense that a new partition is impossible – on the contrary new partitions are possible and inevitable”. And of course the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 incurred the hatred of every single imperialist power. An aroused working class internationally threatened the very existence of capitalism, and prompted an even greater carve-up of ‘spheres of influence’ in the Cold War which followed 1945. At the end of WWII the Soviet Union, by then a powerful planned economy, albeit with monstrous bureaucratic distortions, stood in opposition to the US bloc – a situation which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc in the early 1990s.

US vs China – a new Cold War

The Wall Street Journal recently carried the headline: “It’s US vs. China in an Increasingly Divided World Economy”. China’s entry into the world economy and its relatively high rates of growth have made it an increasingly important player in the world economy. Since the fall of Stalinism in the late 1980s, the Chinese dictatorship has developed an ultra-repressive state capitalist regime. The rapid industrialisation pioneered by the Maoist-Stalinist planned economy, laid the basis for this. However, mass privatisations and the crushing of the Chinese working class following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre opened the way for the ‘opening up’ of China’s economy to the market.

This was a huge boon to Western imperialism, which used cheap Chinese labour to ramp up production of cheap consumer goods to sell overseas. The Chinese ‘Communist’ Party regime also benefited from this, with rapid economic growth laying the basis for a new generation of Chinese billionaires.

China today has more billionaires than any other country except the US, and has become one of the most unequal countries on Earth. The ruling regime represents the most barefaced interlinking of the big banks, massive corporations and the state, with government figures owning massive shares in both sectors. As such, China has developed as not just a capitalist, but increasingly, an emerging imperialist power.

As recently as 2015, British imperialism was hailing a ‘new golden era’ of Britain-China relations, following China’s important role in driving the recovery from the 2007 economic crisis. But more and more, Chinese capitalism has come to be seen as a direct competitor to Western imperialism, leaving some capitalist commentators anxiously debating whether, or at what point, the Chinese economy could overtake the US.

The US capitalists have responded to the threat by encouraging disinvestment by US companies like Apple, who make the majority of their products in China, and by drastically reducing trade with China to prevent technology transfer. As a result, China, with its exports plummeting in each of the last six months, has responded by seeking to develop trade with former colonial countries. China now trades more with them than with the US, Europe and Japan put together. Its Belt and Road Initiative, which offers loans for investment in infrastructure such as airports and railways to countries in Africa and South Asia, has ensnared many into debt-dependency. This was the case in Sri Lanka, where loans which could not be repaid effectively bankrupted the country in 2022.

Since then it has been the rivalry, and emerging conflicts, between these two blocs led by the US and China, which have become the new axis of world relations. ISA has identified this as a ‘new Cold War’. Increasingly the US, fearful of Chinese influence, is attempting to corral the European Union and its constituents into supporting its agenda in Ukraine and lately over Israel-Palestine. China and Russia announced their ‘no limits’ partnership just prior to the invasion of Ukraine, which the Chinese dictatorship was almost certainly privy to. 

China, on one hand, is committed to at least passive support for Russia in that war. China’s exports to Russia grew by 67.2% in the first half of 2023, shielding Russia from the effects of Western ‘decoupling’ from Russian capitalism, and bringing Russia further into China’s sphere of influence.

The Ukraine war is widely seen as a potential precursor to a regional war over Taiwan, the major producer of semi-conductors, essential to the electric vehicles industry, and which both China and the US want access to. Decades of uncertainty about whether the US would intervene militarily if the CCP regime attempted to occupy Taiwan appear to have ended in 2023. Biden has several times insisted that the US would defend Taiwan. At present the stalemate in Ukraine has acted as a deterrent to China’s ambitions in Taiwan.

At the same time, China positions itself as a ‘responsible’ world power – putting forward proposals for a ceasefire (on terms which benefit the Chinese/ Russian bloc) in Ukraine, and aiming to play the role of peacemaker in Israel-Palestine.

What does this analysis explain?

Firstly, an understanding of imperialism explains the persistence of outrageous inequality and poverty across the world. Transnational corporations, whether US-owned like Apple and Ford, Chinese-owned like Lenovo and Huawei, or based in Europe like Siemens and EDF can use their size and monopoly power to extract maximum profits in the countries where they operate.

They also use their top-level connections with their own governments to resist or moderate any attempts at international regulations or new taxes. They are overwhelmingly based in core imperialist countries like the so-called G7 (US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada), with the addition of Russia and China. Forty-seven of the fifty largest transnational corporations are located in these countries, no less than twenty-four in the US alone. The global reach of these companies, which include motor vehicle, oil and other extracting industries with huge carbon footprints, also explains why, on the basis of capitalism, there can be no solution to accelerating climate change.

Secondly, imperialism cannot be reformed away under capitalism. The ex-Marxist Karl Kautsky, at the same time as Lenin in the middle of the devastation of World War I, hoped for a ‘peaceful’ solution: “Cannot the present imperialist policy be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capitals?” Lenin was ruthless in his critique of Kautsky’s utopian schemes which falsely see imperialism as a policy which finance and monopoly capital could simply shed, instead of seeing it as an inevitable and ineradicable feature of capitalism in its late stages.

This debate was echoed by those commentators hailing a new peaceful, unipolar world order following the end of the Cold War. The last few years have shown that such a world order is impossible to maintain. The natural state of imperialist capitalism is one of perpetual conflict and war between rising and declining powers.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the stage of capitalism characterised as imperialism has brought about a gigantic expansion of productive resources, but it has become parasitic and moribund. On the one hand, capitalism has been the motive force behind the development of new, necessary and more sophisticated technology, and a more internationalised world working class than ever before. But it has itself become a barrier to further development and leads to decay. Patents for new ideas are held by private corporations and even jealously guarded by nation states as was seen in the competition for Covid vaccines in the pandemic.

Meanwhile, power struggles between rival imperialist states have driven the climate crisis, war and bloodshed – with those in the neocolonial world facing the worst effects. Capitalism in its highest stage has laid the basis for socialism in the form of an international plan of production but private ownership and the very existence of nation states themselves are an obstacle to further development. The only agency which can burst through those barriers is the international working class, acting in concert and with a far-sighted and determined leadership at its head. 

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