Socialism 101: What do we mean by imperialism?

Today, the global political situation is dominated by war and geopolitical tensions. In recent months, we have seen Western powers supporting and arming a genocidal onslaught in Gaza and a complete inability or outright refusal of capitalist institutions to take any real action to stop Israeli war crimes. More and more people are realising that our world is not, as liberal politicians claim, based on a “rules based international order”. Instead, it is dominated by imperialism. But what do we mean by this?

By Saana Taussi

Today, the global political situation is dominated by war and geopolitical tensions. In recent months, we have seen Western powers supporting and arming a genocidal onslaught in Gaza and a complete inability or outright refusal of capitalist institutions to take any real action to stop Israeli war crimes. More and more people are realising that our world is not, as liberal politicians claim, based on a “rules based international order”. Instead, it is dominated by imperialism. But what do we mean by this?

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Imperialism is an essential feature of the capitalist system, which enforces war and maintains inequality and oppression everywhere. In the early 20th century, Marxists like V.I. Lenin noted how the main capitalist powers had carved up the world between themselves, and were increasingly coming into conflict for dominance over colonies. 

Lenin argued that imperialism was not merely an act of military domination by a large state over a smaller one, but instead was a stage in the development of the capitalist economy. He pointed out how capitalism’s supposed “free market” had led to a concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, giving birth to a small number of massive corporations who financially dominated the globe.

This has been evident in recent years: in 2022 and 2023 it was reported that ruthless profiteering led to superprofits for few mass corporations, while deepening the cost of living crisis for people. The constant need for capitalism to expand has driven it to exploit more from our labour and nature, to privatise public services and commodify everything, parasitically profiting off every aspect of our lives.

Parasitical capitalism

Capitalist governments are tied to and intensely collaborate with these corporations, ultimately representing their interests. Capitalist institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisation present themselves as working in everyone’s interest but in reality they are dominated by the imperialist powers.  

Compared to the colonialism of the past, today most countries appear to be somewhat politically independent. But economically they continue to be exploited by the imperialist powers through finance – this is known as ‘neo-colonialism’. One way imperialist domination works is through loans, trapping countries in heavy debt to extract profit from them. Huge corporations also set up companies in countries where labour-power is cheaper (enabling the hyper exploitation of labour) through foreign direct investment. 

For decades, the U.S. was the dominant imperialist power. But more recently China has begun trading with former colonial countries. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has offered loans for transport infrastructure projects in African and South Asian countries. In reality many countries will struggle to meet the interest rates, and through debt-dependency they are under China’s imperial power. In this way, exportation of finance capital has become a powerful imperialist tool in the exploitation of underdeveloped countries.

Imperialism and war

The ruthless profiteering inherent to capitalism drives corporations and capitalist governments to exploit under-developed countries, and wage wars to maintain control of resources globally. Militarism is an essential feature of imperialism. Today, arms production is on the rise as the imperialist powers are increasingly coming into conflict. 

Imperialism brutally oppresses the vast majority of people on the planet to profit a tiny minority. Imperialist tensions continue to break into war and deepening oppression, as with the genocide in Gaza, the war in Ukraine, the attacks on Congo, and countless times in recent decades when nations have justified military offensives in their own interests. As socialists, we understand that the inter-state conflicts and oppression we are experiencing are not merely reactionary approaches to current events, but that imperialist powers are picking sides on each ongoing war according to their imperial interests. Now more than ever, we need a socialist, anti-imperialist struggle to call out and bring an end to all war and oppression. 

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