Imperialism is one of the key concepts in the revolutionary Marxist tradition, going right back to Russian revolutionary Lenin’s definition of it as the highest stage of capitalism. What Lenin meant is that imperialism represents the developed form of the capitalist system. It is crucial to emphasise the word “system”, because there is an alternative, more traditional way of understanding imperialism. This view sees it as one big powerful country dominating other, and in the contemporary world, usually imperialism in this sense is identified with the US.

There is, of course, a partial truth in this. The US is the most powerful capitalist state globally and it does dominate, bully and oppress people all over the world. For example, look at what is happening in Cuba at the minute. The US has sought to blockade and crush the Cuban revolution ever since it took place in 1958. This is a crucial factor in the economic crisis in Cuba, and the protests taking place as a result. So, to quote former secretary of state Colin Powell, the US really is “the big bully on the block”.

But if you’re analysis of imperialism stops there, then you can draw a conclusion which is sometimes called “campism”. This position essentially says that the US is bad, and states that resist the US are therefore good. What flows from this is that we should support these states and see them as a kind of progressive force. Today, that leads to an identification with China and with Russia. It is a mistake to think of China in those sorts of terms.

A system of domination

Imperialism isn’t just about big powers bullying smaller states or weaker countries. It is about a system of domination, exploitation and competition. At its heart it is a system of powerful capitalist states competing to dominate the rest of the world. Capitalism creates an integrated world economy, but at the same time development within that economy is uneven. There are rich countries and there are poor countries, and the most powerful rich countries compete to dominate the rest.

So it is very important to see that imperialism involves a plurality—a number of different powerful, capitalist states that compete with each other for global domination. Indeed historically imperialism can be seen as what happens when you get the fusion of economic competition and geopolitical competition.

Economic competition, the rivalries between capitalist firms, is the great driving force of capitalism. Karl Marx explained how that competition makes capitals – the individual units of the system – accumulate, extract profit and exploit.

Geopolitical competition is the rivalries between states, and is much older. Many of these go back thousands of years and involve struggles for territorial dominance between rival ruling classes. But at the end of the 19th century these two forms of competition fused, and that’s what imperialism is. Capitalism developed to the point where to be economically profitable, capitals had to operate on a global scale. This required protection and support of from states. Equally, for states to be effective they had to have a strong industrial base that could generate the taxes to pay for, in particular, the advanced weapons systems they required to be militarily effective.

Phases of conflict

From this perspective we can identify three phases in the history of imperialism.

First there is the classical phase which developed around 1870 and continued until 1945. This was dominated by the rivalry in particular between Britain—the centre of the first industrial revolution and the dominant capitalist economy of the 19th century—and two great rising capitalist powers, the US and Germany. Both these powers began to threaten Britain’s economic and geopolitical space and overtake it as an industrial power.

So at the beginning of the 20th century the British ruling class faced a choice. Who should they fight, the US or Germany? The two world wars show the choice that Britain made. But it was too weak to win alone, so it had to ally with the US. The results were two appalling wars including huge destruction and loss of lives, and the horrors of the Holocaust. Out of that process the US became the dominant superpower.

The second phase of imperialism is the period within which the US and its allies—the western, liberal capitalist bloc—competed with the Soviet dominated state capitalist bloc. These two rival imperialist blocs dominated the whole of the world, forcing states to take one side in their rivalries.

Cuba is an interesting example in this process. The 1958 revolution was a nationalist revolution, inevitably directed against the US because it had dominated Cuba economically and politically for decades. In response the US imposed a blockade, and tried to invade and overthrow the Fidel Castro government in 1961. When that failed Castro turned to the support of the Soviet Union which then led to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, where USSR nuclear weapons on the island nearly triggered a third world war. From this point onwards the Cuban regime was forced to rely on the Soviet Union and was integrated into the Soviet bloc. In the process it embraced many of the characteristics of state capitalist societies in order to survive.

The outcome of this second phase was that the Soviet Union couldn’t bear the burden of economic competition with the US and its allies because they were richer and more technically advanced. This is the central cause of the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s.

The present phase of imperialism is one where the US is trying to entrench and globalise its domination by exporting the liberal capitalist model to the rest of the world. But it is now faces a challenge from China. The Chinese regime has taken advantage of the exact features that the US has sought for the last 70 years—economic globalisation and the opening up of global capitalism. So much so that China has grown very rapidly economically into the biggest manufacturing and exporting economy in the world.

The threat from China

Crucially, however, it is outside the US system of alliances. It is not a member of NATO and the other geopolitical blocs and institutions that the US created to entrench its power. And the Chinese Communist Party has its own agenda, which is to push the US out of Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Or as one Chinese admiral recently told his US counterpart, “go back to Pearl Harbour”. President Xi Jinping also aims to transform China to be more than an industrial capitalist economy that is just a platform providing cheap labour for western multinationals. His goal is to make China a high tech economy, as outlined in his “Made in China 2025” strategy.

This combination of geopolitical objectives and the technological enhancement of the Chinese economy is very threatening to the US. And it is not just because the US navy’s domination of Pacific, something that has been a constant since the end of the Second World War, is at risk. The US’s great economic advantage these days is big tech and the power of the big IT corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Netflix. It is terrified of this edge being eroded.

And so we have a situation which is a bit like Britain versus Germany and the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Added to this picture is the fact that the US has been weakened by two things that have taken place in the last 20 years.

The first of these is the failure of the war on terror. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were an attempt to use US military power to further entrench their domination of the Middle East, a key region and source of energy. That whole project failed with abject defeat both in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan. If you want to know what defeat looks like, look at what happened last week at Bagram base. The US created this enormous base at Bagram over 20 years, and then one night they left. They switched off the power and they went. They don’t bother to tell their supposed allies in the Afghan government and army that they were going. It’s not as abject defeat as the US ambassador being flown off the Saigon embassy in 1975 in a helicopter, but it’s a certain defeat.

This very serious defeat has come at the same time as the global financial crisis, the second factor that has weakened the US. This long economic crises started in the US, and has in certain ways undermined the prestige and trust in US leadership among other global capitalist states.

More of the same?

So this is where Joe Biden comes in. Biden, a notoriously boring politician, has proved an interesting president. There are continuities with Trump, such as the continuation of the economic war against China. The tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese goods remain in place today, and the tone towards China is more systematically hostile. Trump’s strategy was erratic and unpredictable. But now we have a coherent policy of hostility to China.

Like Trump, Biden wants to get rid of the wars in the Middle East, known as the “forever wars”. This explains the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But he’s combining these continuities from the Trump regime with massive state expenditure. This is financed largely by borrowing, with the US Federal Reserve, the Central Bank, essentially doing the 21st century equivalent of printing money in order to enhance US competitiveness. And this represents an attempt to cool the social and racial divisions in American society. Such divisions have been laid bare by the assault on the Capitol on 6th January this year, and the Black Lives Matter revolt.

Both of these events rocked the American ruling class. They realised how polarised American society had become. In the latest fly on the wall book of Trump’s reign, General Milley, the head of the US military, is quoted as saying that Trump had a “Reichstag moment” in his final days as president. This refers to 1933 in Germany when Hitler took advantage of someone burning down the Reichstag to give himself dictatorial powers. Milley was terrified that Trump would do something similar to impose a dictatorship in the US—a revealing sign of how worried the US ruling class were.

Biden therefore faces the twin tasks of trying to heal the internal divisions in American society, but also to strengthen the competitiveness of US capitalism abroad. And while he talks of a “New Deal,” he is clear that his main objective is to win the 21st century against the competition of autocratic China.

The US president is also trying to reunite the western capitalist class, after four years of Trump polarising it through his hostility to the EU and NATO, support for Brexit and so on. Biden is trying to ease those divisions, and the proposal agreed by the G20 to create a global rate of corporate taxation is one step in that attempt to reunify. The US, going back to the days of Barack Obama, has been in conflict with the EU because they want to tax US big tech.

The US has defended these firms from such measures due to their importance to the US economy and its geopolitical aspirations. And they have in the past threatened retaliation against European governments for imposing or threatening to impose taxes upon US big tech companies. But if there’s a uniform corporate tax rate globally, then they can tie the western ruling classes into a common tax rate that excludes China.

This attempt to isolate the Chinese will be difficult, not least because there are so many economic advantages to be gained by continuing to trade with and invest in China. So some European leaders oppose this deal.

Dangerous rivalries

All this imperial competition points to a dangerous situation. We have seen arms build ups throughout the world and increasing tensions in the South China Sea. The most recent is the absurd talk of British super aircraft carrier the Queen Elizabeth steaming through this water, a blatant provocation to China. What the US and Britain would do if China picked up the challenge would be an interesting question.

This doesn’t mean that war or anything like that is inevitable, that we’re going to have a repeat of August 1914, but this is a dangerous situation. And therefore we have to build an anti-imperialist movement, but one that goes beyond simply opposing what the US does, important though that is. We have to challenge the other imperialist powers including Russia and China. But we have to go further still and challenge the entire imperialist system that produces these rivalries. It is the system that is the danger to humankind.

  • This is a transcript of a talk at an online meeting discussing Biden, China and the new imperialism with Alex Callinicos and Baba Aye.