What is imperialism?

With the U.S. war against Iraq raging, more and more people are talking about imperialism. Scenes of U.S. troops patrolling the streets of an Arab country, U.S. diplomats handpicking “leaders,” and U.S. corporations earning billions of dollars from Iraqi resources bring to mind the most blatant examples of colonialism from the past 100 years. The slogan “No war for empire” is common at anti-war protests throughout the United States.

Marxists use the term imperialism in a particular way. It is not just a description of a particular policy of a particular government. Imperialism refers to a specific stage of economic development of capitalist relations.

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described the outlines of this analysis in 1916, in the bloodiest days of World War I, in a pamphlet called “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” He wrote this not just to describe the forces that were driving the major capitalist countries into war. He aimed to analyze it in order to fight against it.

The major capitalist countries—the United States, Germany, France, Japan and Britain—have certain common economic features. Major corporations in these countries have merged and conglomerated to such an extent where there are really only a few monopolies that dominate national and even international economies. Through a process known as combination or vertical integration, one corporation owns many layers of production. A steel corporation may own mining companies and smelting companies as well as companies producing finished steel goods like cars or tanks. This may be done directly or indirectly, such as through stock ownership or interlocking boards of directors.

Capitalism’s “free market” roots are replaced by monopoly. A handful of banks and other financial industries dominate the economy by virtue of their ability to manage and organize money among different sectors of the economy.

The process of transforming free market, industrial-based capitalism to monopoly finance capitalism has been completed in the major capitalist countries for close to a century. What changes is the international relationship between these monopolies in terms of markets and “spheres of influence.” During the first great imperialist war, World War I, each of the major European powers needed more resources and more markets than were available. The competition for the domination of these markets led to war on an international scale between the imperialist powers.

Governments—what Marx called the “executive committees of the bourgeoisie”—act in the interests of the centrally organized monopolies. The tendency to war is a reflection of the natural capitalist tendency to constantly conquer new markets and resources. In order to continue to expand economically, an imperialist combine must overcome all resistance from every quarter: workers resistance, resistance from smaller independent capitalists, and competition from imperialist rivals. The drive to war is not a policy—it is a natural tendency of capitalism.

Of course, this drive to war is always hidden under flowery phrases like “solving a humanitarian crisis” or “fighting terrorism.” When the true aims of imperialist war become clear to millions—as they did in World War I—the ruling classes can face revolution.

To say that the U.S. war in Iraq is an imperialist war means that it is not a “mistaken policy” or the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It means that the U.S. ruling class was driven to invade Iraq and control that country’s natural resources—not just for the sake of the profits of U.S. oil companies but for its dominant position relative to other imperialist powers.

It also means that the fight against imperialist war cannot be limited to ex­posing the criminal acts of U.S. imperialism in Iraq. It points to the solution: taking power out of the hands of the banks and monopolies and turning it over to the working class. That is the task of socialists in the anti-war movement.

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