24 May, 2022


Imperialism A Much Bandied But Little Understood Word Of The Leftists

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

I watched the Leftists Forum on TV in relation to the presidential election. The speakers kept referring to imperialism as the threat to the country. What is imperialism and to whom does it constitute a threat? Imperialism as explained in Marxist theory ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire after 1989 when Soviet Central Asia broke up into several republics which include: Kazakhstan (pop. 16 million), Kyrgyzstan (3.8 million), Tajikistan (6.0 million), Turkmenistan (4.2 million), and Uzbekistan (28.2 million), for a total population of 57.1 million as of 2013-2014. They are all independent of Russia. Was there any difference between the Russian imperialism and the imperialism of Britain and France? Was it also exploitation and plunder? How does Marxist theory explain the Soviet Imperialism?

Imperialism as the last stage of Capitalism

The use of the term “imperialism” as the last stage of Capitalism is due to Lenin who wrote the work “Imperialism –the last stage of Capitalism.”The economic imperialism implied in Marxism refers to a dependent relationship- not the inequality in economic relations between the states which are rich and poor or large and small in trading patterns but the dependence of the latter on the former involving the control of the states of the latter on the state power of the former. It involved a political dependence in addition to the economic subordination. Marxists ascribe the domination of the colonies by the Capitalist States as imperialism. They say such imperialism was an essential feature of capitalist development without which capitalism could not have developed. Even if one concedes this to be partly true for British and French Capitalism it is not true for countries like Germany or the USA or even Japan although these countries also aspired to become colonial powers themselves for the sake of national pride and power.

Marxists link imperialism to industrial capitalism. There are different strands in this theory and while some ascribe the imperialism to the need for new markets to maintain the rate of profitability of the capitalists others refer to the need to export capital to exploit the economic opportunities in the prospective colonies which have a surplus of labor but lack capital to put all such labor to work. Neo Liberal economists look upon trade as a voluntary exchange where both parties stand to benefit from the transaction for otherwise they would not enter into it. They say the ideal relationship need not be imperial domination but free trade and free investment. Marxists on the other hand say Capitalism will emerge into monopoly capitalism where the dominant capitalists will establish monopolies in their home countries and seek to repeat the pattern in the colonies through the use of State power. They say there would be a worldwide struggle for monopolistic positions in relation to the sources of raw materials and markets. Neo Liberals regard that the removal of all restrictions on the free movement of goods, labor and capital between States is a better way and that such way is adequate for the development of trade without having relations between States to be based on superior and subordinate status.

Imperialism began in the 16th century under Commercial Capitalism

Economists refer to the history of imperialism, which we too have experienced. Colonialism and imperialism began not with industrial capitalism as assumed by Marxists but with the voyages of discovery in the sixteenth century when European explorers navigated to the East up to China and the Japan on one side and discovered America on the other side. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British who made colonies in the East as well as the Spanish and Portuguese who colonized America were primarily interested in the trade in spices. As long as they could carry on the spice trade without let or hindrance by local rulers they were quite happy. But local rulers had dynastic struggles and wars and they noticed the superior fire power of the colonialists. They mobilized their support in their domestic conflicts.. There was also rivalry between the European Powers engaged in this trade. So the colonialists became involved in conquests and making local states their vassals to secure a monopolistic position for their trade. All this was long before the Industrial Revolution which was to take place around 1760 onwards. There was no industrial capitalism then and Marx himself noted that the industrial capitalists did not emerge from the commercial capitalists of the 16th and 17th centuries. Marxist theory of imperialism links it to industrial capitalism. It ignores the discovery of gold in the Americas and the effect gold imports had on capitalism in the West. There were also the profits from the slave trade. But these were not as important for capital accumulation as made out by those who refer to imperialism as the cause for the accumulation of capital in the West prior to the emergence of Industrial Capitalism. Capital investment in England in 1760s was not more than 6-7 million pounds and the annual tribute from India was only 2 million pounds. The concentration of wealth in Europe had begun in the 16th century. The connection of imperialism as a system of plunder and the rise of industrial capitalism cannot be explained as the result of earlier social formations or ideologies. It is foreign trade that is the engine of growth Subsequent studies of economic development in the East Asian NICs shows that industrialization has been achieved either by state capital accumulation or private capital accumulation plus expanded exports

If Lenin is right it is hard to explain how under capitalism there was a long period of a boom although with ups and downs, but spreading all over the world if the Marxists are right. According to Marxists the capitalists cannot improve the lot of the workers and hence not of the poor either. This economic progress has raised millions of people from poverty in China and India.

Lenin’s view was that the industrial capitalists need new markets and new sources of raw materials. Machinery could be used to increase production as well as cheapen or reduce the cost of production, – to economize on hours of labor and to increase the output per man. Capital applied to the purchase of machinery, materials and labor power in order to produce goods for sale could be enormously expanded. This required continuous expansion of market. In a competitive market only those who continuously expanded their capital to reduce costs could hope to survive. The driving force of Capitalism was the competitive struggle for capital accumulation. The capital accumulation involved the exploitation of labor. Competition between capitalists to develop new cost saving techniques encourages them to go in for investment. Modern industry Marx says ‘never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The new capitalist cannot continue to exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and with them the whole relations of society” (Marx and Engels 1933). The check to investment arises when the process of accumulation comes up against the limitations of the markets, owing to the very source of accumulation for Marx argued that the profits taken from the workers who created the profit were not going back to them and hence they could not afford to purchase the expanded production now coming to the market. Hence the periodic boom and slump. While it is necessary to employ more labor to make more profits such capitalization of profit becomes more and more difficult unless the cost of capital can be lowered or the rate of exploitation raised. Marx saw the development of colonies as a way to increase the exploitation of labor and increase their capital. Imperialism is thus to Marxists a way to increase the exploitation of labor. Imperialism is thus a way of expanding capitalism to the colonies. Since expand or die is the requirement for each individual capitalist and since competition forces all capitalists to do likewise this is reflected in the expansionary drive of capitalist nations. This view of the origins of imperialism is sharply different from the views o classical liberals that imperialism is due to the nationalistic fervor of politicians who want to make their nation powerful in the world stage of power play. This leads them to follow the Mercantilist ideology of monopolizing the colonies trade and settlement.

But modern Capitalism or Free Markets do not need the expansion of territory as sheltered markets as the East Asian NICs have shown. Instead there is emerging a world community of nations which accept free trade and payments and subscribe to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which include the International Covenant on Civil and Human rights. In this context to harp on Imperialism is rather outdated.

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    Mr Senanayake when you write things you must be sure of what you are saying.Imperialism did not start in the 16 century.There were many many empires long before that including the Roman empire. In lenin’s book he argued that capitalism leads to imperalism as capitalist States need to find larger markets for their products. This theory has now proved to an over statement. Singapore is capitalist technically but not an empire. Of course big producers like US , Germany ,Japan and even China need world wide markets for their products.In these web-sites we often have half baked theories and nonsensical stuff.But the reader must be cautious.

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