As is well-known (or should be well-known) Marxism has gradually developed two approaches to imperialism. Marx’s own position was (until the very last years of his life) essentially and unbendingly positive: imperialism, however brutal and disruptive, was the engine whereby more advanced social formation, namely capitalism, was introduced in and transformed more backward societies. Marx’s own writings on the British conquest of India are fairly unambiguous in that respect. Engels’ writings on the French conquest of Algeria are (as is usually the case when one compares Engels’ and Marx’s writing styles) even more “brutal”. In that “classical” view, Western Europe, the United States and the “Third World” would all develop capitalistically, may relatively quickly come to the approximately same levels of development, and capitalism will then directly be replaced by socialism in all of them.
This view depended crucially on two assumptions: that (1) the Western working class remain at the low level of income (subsistence) which would then (2) assure its continued revolutionary fervor. Assumption (1) was common to all 19th century economists, was supported until the mid-19th century by the observed evidence, and Marx was not an exception. But towards the end of the century, Engels had noticed the emergence of “workers’ aristocracy” which blunted the edge of class conflict in Britain, and possibly other advanced countries. The increase in wages was “fed”, Engels argued, from colonial profits realized by British capitalists. Although the increases were mere “crumbs from capitalists’ table” (Engels) they exploded the theory of the “iron law of wages” and, collaterally, the revolutionary potential of the working class in the West. Thus the seeds of the idea that imperialism may undermine class struggle in developed countries were sown and that had far reaching consequences.
Bill Warren’s “Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism” (published in 1980; unfinished due to Warren’s death) credits Lenin of the post-1914 vintage for the change (or rather criticizes him for it). In Lenin’s “Imperialism…” the monopoly capitalism having lost the vigor of free-market capitalism and having become “decrepit” was seen in need of foreign expansion (to maintain profits at earlier levels). This in turn led to imperialist struggle for territories that ended up in World War I. At the same time, working classes’ relative material ease in developed countries made them abandon the revolutionary path and support “opportunistic” and nationalistic social-democratic parties (and their leaders, notably the “renegade” Kautsky). The struggle of the “peoples of the East” (as they were called in the first congress in Baku in 1920) against imperialism become integrated into an overall struggle against capitalism, and imperialism ceased to be seen as a dynamic precursor of the forthcoming socialism, but rather the extension of moribund capitalism. In Warren’s words, “it is now not the character of capitalism that determines the progressiveness…of imperialism, but the character of imperialism that determines the reactionary character of capitalism” (p. 47).
This change of position had far-reaching consequences for the thinking of the left that Warren excoriates. It led to the theories of “core” and “periphery”, “structural dependency” etc. (Frank, Amin, Cardoso, Prebisch). These theories, Warren argues, were wrong because they predicted faster growth if countries were to disengage from the dominant global system (which all proved to have been illusions—Warren is less sanguine on that than we can be now), and they had nothing to do with workers’ struggle in the emerging economies because they reflected the interests of nationalist Third World bourgeoisies.
Now, I wish I could write a very lengthy review of Warren’s extremely stimulating book—which also contains many infuriating sections—but I will have to leave it for another time. (In the “infuriating area”, Warren, for example, celebrates the increase of inequalities in developing countries such as the concentration of land ownership into the hands of latidundistas because he regards it as an indicator of adoption of more efficient capitalistic methods of production in agriculture, p. 207). His celebrations of inequality throughout the second part of the book—dealing with post-1945 developments—would make Friedman and Hayek blush!) But my point is not Warren’s book as such but its very contemporary implications.
It is directly relevant for the understanding of the rise of new capitalist economies in Asia. Richard Baldwin’s recent book (reviewed here), even if Baldwin does not make any allusions to either the classical Marxist position or to the dependency theory, clearly shows that the economic success of Asia was based on the use of capitalistic relations of production and inclusion in the global supply chains, that is in active participation in globalization. Not passive—but a participation that was sought after, desired. It is thus no accident that China has become the main champion of globalization today. Therefore, Asian success directly disproves the dependency theories and is in full agreement with the classical Marxist position about the revolutionary impact of capitalism, and by extension of “neo-imperialism”, in less developed societies.
This has enormous implications on how we view and try to explain dramatic shifts in economic power which have occurred in the past half-century (whence the origins of this transformation? the role of the nation-state and imperialism? the role of the bourgeois-led independence movements?) and how we see the developments ahead. I will not develop these issues now because my thinking is still evolving and I plan to lay it out in a book, but I think that, in trying to understand the changes in the modern world, the best we can do is to go to the literature and the debates from exactly one hundred years ago. (And Warren’s book although of course much more recent has its roots in what was discussed then). Short of that I cannot see any broader narrative that makes sense of the epochal changes we are living through.