Course outline: Marxism and Imperialism

Submitted by martin on 17 June, 2003 - 12:16

Week 1. Marx
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels presented the spreading-out of industrial capitalism across the world as a revolutionary, civilising process.
"The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood... By the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, [it] draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation..." The strand remained in Marx's and Engels' thought until their last days.
But they qualified it and rounded it out with others:
- The role of brute force, plunder and slave-trade in launching metropolitan capitalist development ("primitive accumulation");
- The fact that free trade created inequalities between nations as well as between classes (Marx frequently called England "the despot of the world market");
- The progressive role of national liberation struggles (for them, most importantly, Ireland and Poland).
Discussion points
- Why does free trade generate inequalities between nations as well as between classes?
- Was "primitive accumulation" a one-off process?
- Why did European powers have colonial empires at the time Marx was writing, before the terminology or ideology of "imperialism" became current?
- How could Marx regard the "imperialist" spread of capital across the world as "progressive" (or "destructive", or "revolutionary" - he uses the three words almost interchangeably), and yet fight against imperialism?

Week 2. Kautsky
From the late 19th century, the more cosmopolitan, free-trade world of the Communist Manifesto was replaced by a world of increasing trade blocs, tariffs, cartels, monopolies, militarism - and deliberate, announced, drives to build colonial empires by the big European powers.
The first main Marxist writer on this was Karl Kautsky. He developed the ideas that:
- "Imperialism" was a distinct new stage of capitalism, linked to the ascendancy of finance capital and militarism;
- It signified capitalism losing its progressive impulses and becoming more reactionary and crisis-ridden;
- Socialists should support national emancipation in a much more general, across-the-board way than Marx and Engels had done.
Discussion points
- How was this new "imperialism" different from the old business of colonial empires?
- What was the connection between it and "finance capital"?
- Where did Kautsky's ideas stand in relation to others, in this period when the terminology and ideology of "imperialism" became current? To right-wingers in the socialist movement? To bourgeois liberal anti-imperialists?
- Why did Kautsky insist that the new imperialism, involving much more systematic export of capital than previous stages, represented a final stage of decay in capitalist development?

Week 3. Hilferding and Luxemburg
Kautsky's writings were followed up by two other Marxists writing book-length studies. Rudolf Hilferding further developed the idea of "finance capital"; Rosa Luxemburg, that of the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the relation between capitalist metropolis and less-developed colonies or periphery.
Discussion points
- Hilferding developed a full-blown theory of "finance capital" as a new stage of capitalism. How did this theory run? How does it stand up with hindsight? What attitude to this "finance capital", as distinct from capital in general, did Hilferding propose that socialists should take?
- For Rosa Luxemburg, why did a capitalist metropolis have an economic need for a less-developed hinterland?
- And what would the effects be on the people of that less-developed hinterland?
- How did Rosa Luxemburg deal with the idea of imperialism being "progressive" in the sense that Marx saw it as such?

Week 4. Lenin
In the years immediately before, and at the start of, World War One, Kautsky changed his views on imperialism. Lenin drew together ideas from the younger Kautsky, from Hilferding, and from his Bolshevik comrade Nikolai Bukharin, into a pamphlet vindicating the idea that World War One was the outcome of a new, "imperialist", phase of capitalism, and only a bold revolutionary anti-war policy could respond to it.
Discussion points
- What was the gist of Lenin's argument connecting the war to finance capital, the growth of monopolies, etc?
- The socialists who supported their own governments in World War One or who (like Kautsky) equivocated: what did they say about imperialism?
- What did Lenin mean by his insistence that "imperialism" dated only from 1898-1902?
- What was Lenin's attitude on the "revolutionary"/ "progressive", or "reactionary"/ "decaying", characterisation of imperialism, as compared with Marx's, Kautsky's, and Luxemburg's?

Week 5. After World War 2
Between World War One and World War Two, the essential patterns summarised in Lenin's pamphlet remained in operation. After World War Two, however, there were gradual but dramatic changes: the break-up of the old colonial empires and trade blocs, the reorganisation of the world into two spheres dominated by two superpowers.
Discussion points
- What were the main changes in the world structure after 1945, compared to the era between 1882 and 1939?
- Did political independence bring economic changes in the former colonies?
- Was the USSR imperialist?
- What ideas were developed by radical writings on imperialism after World War Two ("dependency theory")? How do they relate to the ideas of Marx, Kautsky, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin, etc?
- Compare Samir Amin's account of this period with that in Workers' Liberty. Where do the two accounts disagree? Why?

Week 6. Globalisation
1989-91 saw a radical new shift, with the collapse of the second superpower, the USSR, and its sphere. In its wake, tendencies to more intense international economic interconnection, in operation since World War 2, accelerated dramatically, giving rise to many phenomena called "globalisation".
Discussion points
- Different elements and strands can be distinguished within "globalisation". What are they, and how are they interconnected?
- Does "globalisation" represent a return to the "imperialism of free trade" of Marx's time in the mid-19th century? With what differences?
- What should the socialist attitude be to "globalisation"? Are we "anti-globalisation"? Is capitalism "in decline"?
- Compare Samir Amin's account of this period (week 5 reading) with that in Workers' Liberty. Where do the two accounts disagree? Why?

Week 7. The "New American Century"
The USA has increasingly emerged as the new "despot of the world market", much more so than Britain at the time when Marx applied the same description to it. What perspectives does this open?
Discussion points
- How can the USA figure as such a "despot" given the elements of relative decline in its economic position? How long-lasting and stable is its position as "despot"?
- We're against despots. Does it follow that we should support any and every power resisting US hegemony, because the USA is the "main enemy" now?
- Will the Iraq war be the first step towards the USA developing a new colonial or semi-colonial empire?
- Is Ellen Wood right to argue that Marx's ideas are more relevant to today's world that to the world when Marx wrote?