How useful is the Marxist concept of imperialism to our understanding of contemporary international relations?

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How useful is the Marxist concept of imperialism to our understanding of contemporary international relations?

        Curiously enough, most of the clues to the Marxist theory of imperialism in this century were provided by the English economist John A. Hobson (1858-1940). Hobson argued that imperialism results from maladjustments within the capitalist system, in which wealthy minority oversaves while an impoverished or ‘bare substitute’ majority lacks the buying power to consume the goods of modern industry. Capitalists are therefore faced with the problem of over-production and under-consumption. If capitalists were willing to redistribute their surplus wealth in the form of domestic welfare measures, there would be no serious structural problem. The capitalists, however, seek to reinvest their surplus wealth by seeking foreign profit-making ventures abroad. The result is imperialism, ‘the endeavour of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home.’ Hobson’s view on imperialism was the basis for the Marxist concepts, and a huge influence of Lenin.

        The best-known theorist of imperialism in modern times was Lenin. The architect of the Bolshevik Revolution was neither the scholar nor the original thinker that Hobson was. In addition to borrowing ideas from Hobson, Lenin relied upon Hilferding’s analysis of the role of monopoly capitalism:

“Imperialism is capitalism in the stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international thrusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the great capitalist powers has been completed.” 


Lenin connects imperialism with the size of modern industry. Marx had argued that with capitalism there is a tendency towards centralisation and concentration of production. The onward march of the society in this view led to the undermining of small-scale producers. This leads to the production of monopolies. Lenin derived monopoly capitalism, which he connected with imperialism, from four factors: (1) the concentration of production in combines, cartels, syndicates, and trusts, (A present day example of a cartel is the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which brought about a major economic crisis on the early 1970s by withholding supplies to push up prices); (2) the competitive quest for sources of raw materials; (3) the development of banking organisations; and (4) the transformation of the ‘old’ colonial policy into a struggle for centres of economic interest in which the richer and the more powerful nations exploit the weaker ones. Lenin took strong exception to Karl Kautsky’s thesis that imperialism was merely the ‘preferred policy’ of capitalist states; for Lenin it was inevitable. Moreover, in the Leninist interpretation,  the receipt of monopoly profits by the capitalists of certain industries enables them to corrupt the workers in those industries, who for the sake of a higher standard of living ally themselves with the bourgeoisie against their fellow workers of the exploited, imperialised countries.

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        Since finance capitalism is the source of imperialism, for Marxist-Leninists it also becomes the principle source of international wars in the capitalist era, or at least the only source which concerns them. If there were other sources of conflict, Marxists prefer not to pay much attention to them. Hobson, who was a liberal rather than a Marxist, had conceded that there are ‘primary instincts’ of the human race that played a part in nineteenth-century imperialism. The instinct for the control of land, the ‘nomadic habit’ that survives as love of travel, the ‘spirit of adventure’, the sporting and hunting ...

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