“Imperialism” is a slippery word as all states seek to channel as much of world profits their way as they can. It is just that some states are stronger than others and so are better at doing this. In which case “imperialist” would just be another way of describing the successful states. But this does not mean that currently weaker states are not striving to do the same. Imperialism is not something separate from capitalism. All capitalist countries, not just those normally labelled “imperialist”, are prepared to use force to further the vital economic interests of their capitalist class. Every up-and-coming capitalist power finds the world already carved up by the established powers. If it is to expand its influence it must clash with these powers, as Germany, Japan, Italy and Russia have found and as China is now finding. All of them, in their time, have beaten the "anti-imperialist" drum, that is, have opposed the domination of the world by Britain and France and later America. Mussolini talked of Italy as a "proletarian nation" in a class war against the "bourgeois nations". Nazi Germany stirred up Arab and Latin American nationalism. Japan advanced the slogan of "Asia for the Asians". Russia, too, and now China, like Germany before, vociferously denounce Anglo-French-American imperialism. Anti-imperialism is the doctrine long used by capitalists in relatively weak countries to try and pursue their ends.
Lenin's conception possessed a fairly run-of-the-mill analysis of imperialism and colonialism as put forward by Social-Democrats of the time. It was based on the Austrian Social-Democrat Rudolf Hilferding. Due to the higher profits to be made in the colonies and less developed countries than at home, Lenin and Hilferding detailed the supposedly unstoppable growth of monopoly in industry and banking but carried it much further, crediting the banks with dominating industry and the cartels with fixing prices and dividing up world markets among themselves.
Lenin wrote: "Cartels become one of the foundations of the whole economic life. Capitalism has been transformed into imperialism."
Hilferding wrote: "An ever-increasing proportion of the capital used in industry is finance capital, capital at the disposition of the banks which is used by the industrialists".
Lenin quoted and endorsed this. Hilferding said that it was only necessary to take over six large Berlin banks to take possession of ". . . the most important spheres of large-scale industry". It is worth noticing that in the depression of the 1930s most of the big German banks collapsed, or almost did so, along with the industrial companies in which the banks' money was tied up. Among other forecasts made by Lenin was that because of the dominance of finance capital "there was a decrease in the importance of the Stock Exchange". Kautsky thought that the end result would be "a single world monopoly . . . a universal trust", followed by socialism. Hilferding thought that this single world monopoly was "thinkable economically, although socially and politically such a state appears unrealisable, for the antagonism of interests . . . would necessarily bring about its collapse". But Hilferding thought that world cartels would result in "longer . . . periods of prosperity" and shorter depressions. The long depression of the 1930s and others since belie this. How far this process will go remains to be seen, but the belief of Hilferding and Lenin that competition was dead, has been disproved. Hilferding, Lenin and all failed to allow for the sectional divisions of interest in the capitalist class. Hilferding treated the monopolist industries as representing a united capitalist class. Lenin made a valid point that sometimes the Powers try to annex regions "not so much for their own direct advantage as to weaken an adversary and undermine its hegemony". Lenin and Hilferding both saw the growth of monopoly and its resulting wars as a prelude to socialism and insisted that socialism was the only answer. Hilferding found himself acting as Finance Minister in a German coalition government, trying vainly to solve the problems of German capitalism. And Lenin's "socialism" resulted in Russia becoming a capitalist super-power.
It was only in 1920, in a preface to the French and German editions, of his ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ that Lenin introduced the idea that a section of the working class in the imperialist countries shared in the booty extracted from capitalists, the so-called “aristocracy of labour” of skilled workers – shares in the proceeds of the exploitation of colonial and now ‘Third World’ countries, workers, and peasants in the rest of the world. Basically, he argued that as profits were greater in the undeveloped parts of the world capitalists were eager to invest there; this brought the capitalist states into continual conflict over the division of the world. Part of the "super-profits" of this imperialist exploitation was used to pay higher wages and provide social reforms for sections of the workers at home. They were thus led away from revolutionary socialism towards opportunism. His anti-imperialism was to try to secure the support of anti-colonial movements for his beleaguered regime in Russia. If they succeeded, he believed, they would deprive the imperialist state concerned of its super-profits and so also of its ability to buy off its workers. Deprived of their share the workers' standard of living would drop and they would once again become revolutionary, affording a chance for a Bolshevik-type vanguard to seize power. It was a political manoeuvre – “workers and colonial peoples unite” – that went against the basic principle of Marxian economics that wages represent the value of the labour-power a worker sells and contain no element of surplus value. Wages paid to skilled workers here reflect the higher quality – due to more education, training, and skill – of the labour power they have to sell. Marx had a quite different explanation as to why wages were higher in these countries. Both productivity and the rate of exploitation (ratio of paid to unpaid labour) were higher there:
"The more productive one country is relative to another in the world market, the higher will be its wages compared with the other. In England, not only nominal wages but (also) real wages are higher than on the continent. The worker eats more meat, he satisfies more needs. This, however, only applies to the industrial worker and not the agricultural labourer. But in proportion to the productivity of the English workers their wages are not higher (than the wages paid in other countries)" (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value).
A lower rate of wages does not make any one country any less capitalist than another: "The different states of the different civilised countries, in spite of their motley diversity of form, all have this in common, they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed" ( Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme).
It was Louis Boudin in his ‘Socialism and War’ who put in its most crude form the theory on imperialism and war. He argued that the turning point was the replacement of such industries as textiles by iron and steel. He wrote: “Modern imperialism . . . is the expression of the economic fact that iron and steel have taken the place of textiles as the leading industry of capitalism, and imperialism means war. Textiles, therefore mean peace, iron and steel - war. The argument was that exports of textiles and similar consumer goods are paid for at once but iron and steel exported to build railways, factories, ports and so on are long-term investments needing the protection provided by the home government turning importing countries into colonies.”
Boudin's theory to explain competition for markets was that the basis of all capitalist industrial development is the fact that the working class produces not only more than it consumes, but more than society as a whole consumes. Therefore, said Boudin, developed countries cannot find markets inside the capitalist world but only on the fringes of capitalism, first in primitive agriculture at home and, when that too is developed, only in the countries not yet developed. These countries themselves develop and have to seek non-existent markets for their "surplus" products. It is only necessary to look at what actually takes place to see that Boudin's theory is demonstrably false. The working class do not produce more than society itself consumes. Or rather, they alternately produce more than society currently consumes and then less than society currently consumes. At the onset of a depression stocks pile up of the goods some industries have overproduced for their markets but later on, as recovery begins, stocks run down again. It is clear that Boudin was wrong in their belief that the competitive struggle for markets results from an inbuilt deficiency of demand in the home market. The profit motive behind the search for overseas markets by the export capitalists is no different from the profit motive behind the home producers for the home market, and the import capitalists.
Rosa Luxemburg’s theory on imperialism was based on an equally faulty analysis of capitalism: that it suffered from a chronic shortage of home purchasing power that drove capitalist countries to seek markets outside capitalism, in the less developed parts of the world.
Bukharin developed the idea of a single capitalist world economy and anticipated the role that the state was to play in supporting the overseas economic interests (markets, raw material resources, investment outlets, trade routes) of the capitalist firms established within its borders.
Many Leftists assert that socialists should support any movement, even if it is not socialist, that weakens "American imperialism" which they say is the main threat to social revolution throughout the world, just as Marx supported moves against Tsarist Russia. Second, and this comes from Lenin, the national liberation 'freedom-fighters' and workers in the West are fighting the same enemy—imperialism—and so we should support each other. It is true that in the middle of the nineteenth century Marx saw Tsarist Russia, the "gendarme of Europe", as a great threat to the further social progress of mankind. He felt that if Russia overran Western Europe it would crush the democratic movement and put the social revolution back for years. Therefore, he was ready to support any moves that might weaken the power of Tsarist Russia. He supported Britain, France, and Turkey in the Crimean war. He stood for an independent Polish state, to be a buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. He did all he could to expose the pro- Russia policies and intrigues of Lord Palmerston. These may seem odd activities for a socialist—and, indeed, we have criticised Marx for them. Marx argued that before socialism is possible society must pass through the capitalist stage. But this is no automatic process; it depends on the outcome of human struggles. Russia was "reactionary" in the proper sense of the word in that it was a threat to the development even of capitalism. Marx opposed Tsarist Russia, not because it was the strongest capitalist power, but because it was the strongest anti-capitalist power. Looking back now we can see that Marx was over-optimistic as to the prospects of a socialist revolution in Europe. In time the capitalist states of Western Europe grew stronger and the Tsarist Empire weaker, finally to be destroyed along with Austro- Hungary and Imperial Germany in the first world war. Before that even, Russia in a bid to keep its armed forces up to date had become indebted to the capitalists of France and Belgium. Well before the turn of the century we can say that conditions had changed since Marx's day. Capitalism was firmly established as the new world order. Russia was no longer a threat. Anti-imperialism is not the same as anti-capitalism. The task of socialists is clear - to oppose all wars and nationalist movements and to work to build up a world-wide workers' movement with socialism as its aim. This has always been the policy of the Socialist Party.
We find that government today is, in reality, the executive committee of the trusts and affiliated banks who use diplomacy and armed force if not actually to annex countries, at least to secure markets, excluding competition in their self-allotted spheres of interests. Imperialism aims at the control of all the small nations to exploit them for its own benefit. "Anti-imperialism" is the slogan of local capitalists who wish to dominate a region in place of one of the Super-Powers, a situation which would still leave the mass of the population there exploited and oppressed with the eternal problem of finding enough money to buy the things they need to live.
Anti-imperialist struggles are class struggles under an ideological smokescreen, but not of the working class. They are either struggles by an aspiring capitalist class to establish themselves as a new national ruling class or struggles by an established but weak national ruling class to gather a bigger share of world profits for themselves. There is no reason why socialists should support them. Socialists do not allow themselves to be used as tools of some capitalist state. Socialists are opposed to world capitalism and to governments everywhere. If we are to eliminate wars, waged to obtain markets for the surplus wealth the workers produce, we must realise that our position in society is to transform the private ownership of the means of production and distribution into social ownership, producing for use instead of for profit. The function of the Socialist Party is to educate the workers to this end.