The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

3.2.1 Marxist theories of imperialism

However, it is in thinking about the relationship between capitalist development and power that the third of our views of international order mentioned above – Marxism – comes to the forefront (even if much of the early Marxist debate was informed by Hobson’s writings). At a general level, in classical Marxism, ‘imperialism’ referred to aspects of international capitalist development – its forcible expansion into pre-capitalist regions and the economically exploitative, and politically coercive relations between differentially empowered regions within the capitalist world, such that one region benefited at the expense of another. In the debate among Marxists prior to the First World War, the central question was how rival imperialisms related to one another. Here, a similar distinction to that drawn by Hobson – between Imperialism and Informal Empire – can be seen.

Hobson’s notion of Imperialism became the basis for the most influential statement of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism – namely, Lenin’s idea of inter-imperialist rivalry [Inter-imperialist rivalry. Inter-imperialist rivalry refers to the tendency of international economic competition among capitalists to escalate to political competition among states as a result of the links between national blocs of capital and nation states. It is usually seen as a zero sum or even negative sum phenomenon.] leading to war and revolution. Inter-capitalist competition operating internationally has, in Perry Anderson’s formulation, ‘an inherent tendency to escalate to the level of states’ and, left unchecked, ‘the logic of such anarchy can only be internecine war’ (Anderson, 2002, p.20). This view accorded priority to the division of the world economy into national states. While competing capitalist firms have a common interest in political arrangements that ensure the subordination of labour to capitalist command and in the guarantee of the overall preconditions for capital accumulation, these political functions are divided between multiple states. For Lenin, national states became tied to nationally organised blocs of capital, which are compelled to compete against one another, as rival imperialisms, when competition among firms becomes increasingly international. The key link for Lenin was between a given state and its ‘national’ capital; the end result was an increasing militarisation of inter-imperialist rivalries.

The epoch of the latest stage of capitalism shows us that certain relations between capitalist combines grow up, based on the economic division of the world; while parallel and in connection with it, certain relations grow up between political combines, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the ‘struggle for economic territory’.

(Lenin, 1916, p.89)

The central idea here is that competition between capitalist enterprises of differing nationalities is translated into political competition among states that seek to defend the interests of ‘their’ firms by means of the ‘struggle for economic territory’. In turn, this territorial competition between states becomes mutually destructive, leading to wars and revolutions.

This argument was questioned by Karl Kautsky, the German Marxist and contemporary of Lenin (see Figure 1). His untimely claim, published on the eve of the First World War, was that the survival of capitalism depended on the emergence of a mechanism for coordinating competing states – ultra-imperialism [Ultra-imperialism. Ultra-imperialism refers to forms of cooperation among imperialist powers aimed at securing the mutual interests of internationally operating capitalist firms and the leading capitalist states. It is usually seen as a positive-sum phenomenon for the states and firms concerned.] – in order to ensure that the general preconditions for accumulation were met (Kautsky, 1970). Kautsky’s notion of ultra-imperialism is similar to Hobson’s concept of an Informal Empire, and Kautsky reckoned that an international division of labour structured along corporate lines, rather than national ones, would provide the basis for such an order. Capitalist firms, as well as ‘their’ national states, would recognise the mutually destructive nature of inter-imperialist rivalry and fashion forms of cooperation to secure the mutual interests of the leading capitalist countries. Lenin recognised the force of Kautsky’s argument but argued that it was nonetheless utopian, since there was no agency in the international system that could effect the requisite coordination.

Figure 1 Debating imperialism: Karl Kautsky (left) and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (right)

The outbreak of the First World War and the rivalries between the leading capitalist states in the inter-war depression and the Second World War seemed to support Lenin over Kautsky. But after the Second World War, relations among the leading capitalist states stabilised and, under US leadership, deep and extensive forms of cooperation were fashioned, as you have seen. This led some, such as US Marxists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy (1966) to argue that Kautsky’s world had been achieved by Leninist means. US imperialism had established such overwhelming dominance, by virtue of the defeat and exhaustion of rivals during the war, that it was able to monopolise the stabilisation of capitalism in the periphery as well as the defence of world capitalism against the challenges now posed by the Soviet Union and the rest of the communist world. This idea of super-imperialism [Super-imperialism. Super-imperialism refers to a situation in which one imperialist power – the USA after the Second World War – is sufficiently powerful to perform general political and geopolitical functions for all the leading capitalist states and in which subordinate states defer to that leadership. It is usually seen as a positive-sum phenomenon.] suggested that because the USA was so powerful in relation to its allies, and because it performed the general functions for all the major capitalist power centres of controlling the periphery and defending the capitalist world from communism, it was able to play a decisive role in directing a wide range of coordinating actions among the leading capitalist powers.

Activity 2

Make sure that you can identify the differences between Lenin’s imperialism, Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism and the idea of super-imperialism.


For Lenin, the crucial relationship is between capitalist firms and ‘their’ home state, which translates economic competition into political conflict. For both ultra-and super-imperialism, the underlying idea is that the stability of the capitalist world as a whole depends on the performance of certain global political functions – stabilizing the periphery, combating ideological challenges, solving conflicts of policy among the leading centres of capital accumulation – in order to uphold the common interests of different, and potentially rival, capitalist classes and states. Both ultra-and super-imperialism refer to co-operative relations among the leading capitalist powers (rather than rivalry), but for super-imperialism cooperation is enforced by the superior power of one state.


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