Issues of continuity and change within imperialism

By Robert Biel

More than a century ago, the term imperialism was openly used by a number of great industrial powers determined to subordinate and exploit the rest of the world.

Around 1900, the left began to point out that imperialism is not just a policy, but a product of powerful forces within capitalist economy and society, driven by the big corporations and financial interests in their drive to accumulate capital.

The key to understanding these forces is to view accumulation (i.e. the expansion of capital) as a world process.

Conventionally, development is supposed to happen at a national level, with a country’s economy expanding in a self-sustaining way. But in reality the global circuits which pump capital and goods round the world system sweep through the economies of the South.

Different parts of the South may suffer this in different ways, according to the law of uneven development. In some case this means that capital can’t fix itself locally, so development occurs in a distorted form. Or in other cases there may be rapid industrial growth in the South, but is still not really self-sustaining, it still needs a continued impulse (capital-flows or markets, for example) from outside, and if the impulse dries up, so will the development. A third possibility is that value is actually siphoned out of the country and feeds the growth of the centre.

Not only does the global system prevent coherent development at a local level, but even the global level itself is very unstable. Firstly, it depends on continually plundering non-renewable resources from the ecosystem. Secondly, the established areas of the capitalist system like industry aren’t enough to guarantee accumulation, so the system is always looking for new areas of life – food, culture, leisure, sport – to turn into commodities. Thirdly, it exhausts human labour: the flexible economy gives people less income when they actually need more to pay for all the services which increasingly become part of the profit system. This burden falls particularly heavily on women.

We need to understand how today’s world system relates to the early imperialist period which was analysed, nearly a century ago, by people like Lenin. Two things are important: Firstly, continuity: the concept of imperialism is still valid, and many essential features from that early period are still present; and secondly, the differences: there are some areas where old-style imperialism had to change, and eventually was able to change.


  • Firstly, imperialism theory of the early 1900s correctly highlighted the dominant role of massive industrial interests which eventually became today’s transnational corporations. In a real sense, they were and remain the effective driving force behind policy. They have simply become more powerful than ever.

  • The second area of continuity is the role of finance capital, a form of capital which is simply speculative and has no attachment to a particular branch of industry. If we look at the central role of pure speculation and gambling within today’s financial markets, the continuity is clear, the same forces are at work and have simply got much worse. In fact, as Lenin already pointed out, the predominance of finance capital actually undermines the ability of the corporations to make long-term plans, thus emphasising the chaotic nature of the capitalist world economy.

  • Thirdly, early imperialism introduced the possibility of an accentuated racial discrimination against the peoples of the South, carried forward from old colonialism, but now able to flourish within the more open world economy demanded by the big financial interests. Today’s ‘global apartheid’ reflects this continuity.


Alongside these three areas of continuity, it’s useful to identify three areas which needed to change.

  • First, at the beginning of the 20th century there was frantic competition among the great powers which threatened to tear the system apart – it nearly did.

  • Secondly, there was not yet a consumer society in the North. This meant ordinary people could only be made to support the system by propagating extreme and dangerous forms of nationalism; it also meant that industry would stagnate if it couldn’t find fresh products.

  • Thirdly, there was no recipe for ‘dependent development’ in the South. Instead, the colonies were still virtually prevented from developing at all, but this would restrict the opportunities for Northern capital to expand itself by exploiting their cheap labour. There was a big drive to export capital, but it didn’t yet have a social framework to receive it in the South.

In many ways, the subsequent history of imperialism is the history of the search to resolve these problems. The solution to the three was in fact linked.


Around 1900, the English writer Hobson, in analysing imperialism, presented a startling image – that of a development of the international economy along ‘rentier’ lines. A rentier is someone who doesn’t work and lives on income from investment. By extension, the nations of the centre could get the South to provide them with cheap consumer goods while simultaneously profiting from the investment which made this production possible. This prediction implies the whole recent history of export promotion and the so-called Asian miracle.

But this scenario also carries dangers for imperialism: the people of the South may wake up to the fact that they are doing all the work and kick out the exploiters.

As part of the solution to this problem, Hobson floated the idea of a ‘federation of the Western states’. The powerful incentive which might persuade the imperialists of different nations to stop fighting each other would be to form a unified political, economic and military force to control the world system. Today’s institutions like G7 or the IMF’s Structural Adjustment programmes are the expression of this.

Also, as Lenin pointed out, the imperialist interests were exporting capital not because their development had come to a dead end internally, but because (a) they were after a higher profit and (b) if they developed their own countries too much it would disturb the balance of class forces. It was therefore theoretically possible for the industrial countries to develop their economy and society in a new way, which could include growing consumerism, so long as a way was found to do this without the wealth of working people in the North making them less subservient to capital.

The answer to this problem has been revealed by imperialist development over the past 50 years: all the new ways of exploiting under-valued Southern can ensure there is enough profits for the status of the capitalist interest within the North to be maintained, even while consumption rises.

Imperialism is not static. It develops, but the social contradictions remain. The flexible economy and globalisation have simply created new forms of the conflict between labour and capital. The radical forces need to position themselves within these new struggles. They need to acquire a strategic vision of how imperialism develops in order to plan ahead and guide the struggles to victory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.