Book Review: ‘Imperialism – Pioneer of Capitalism’

‘Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism’, by Bill Warren, Verso, £3.95

It is not difficult to see why this book has been the subject of a virtual conspiracy of silence in left wing circles since it challenges one of their deep-rooted pre-judices: anti-imperialism. Warren argues that, far from keeping the underdeveloped countries underdeveloped imperialism, in paving the way for the development of capitalism, has precisely provided the framework for their modernisation and development.

Warren confuses “socialism” with state capitalism and claims to be a Marxist; in fact his argument with his left wing colleagues is merely about which form of capitalism ― private or state ― is best for the underdeveloped countries. Clearly not an argument in which we are called upon to take sides.

We must take issue, however, with Warren on one key point and, perhaps surprisingly, come to the defence of Lenin. Warren criticises Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism not only for its faulty economic analysis (which we do too) but also for arguing that capitalism had become, by about the end of the 19th century, “reactionary” in the sense of having fulfilled its historical role of developing the means of production.

Warren argues in effect that capitalism still had, and still has a progressive role to play. Hence his defence of imperialism as the “pioneer of capitalism”. He is here taking up the same position as Marx, who considered that in his day capitalism had a progressive economic and political role to play; he even accepted that colonialism (he never used the word “imperialism”) in spreading capitalism beyond Europe had a progressive aspect.

But within a generation of Marx’s death in 1883 capitalism can be said to have fulfilled its progressive role in the sense of having become the dominant world system and of having built up, in the world-wide productive system capable of turning out abundance for all, the materialist basis for a socialist world. This was what Social Democratic thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin were trying, however confusedly, to convey when they talk of “imperialism”. This is not a word we generally use ourselves since it can suggest that what is bad is not capitalism itself but only its “imperialist” excesses, but the basic idea that, by around the turn of the century, capitalism had become reactionary is one we accept. Lenin, incidentally, was not consistent here: while accepting that capitalism had become reactionary in the developed capitalist countries, he still claimed that it had a progressive role to play in Asia, Latin America and Africa. But capitalism is a world system and when it became reactionary it became so for the whole world.

In trying to argue that capitalism/imperialism still has a progressive role to play Warren is quite wrong. Certainly, as he shows, capitalism is still developing the means of production but this development is in the form of the accumulation of capital, and the attendant problems and miseries this form brings. It is no longer necessary since socialism, the next stage in social evolution, has long been materially and technically possible.


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