Imperialism and Capitalist Development in Marx’s Capital

in Historical Materialism
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This article aims at contributing to current debates on the ‘new imperialism’ by presenting the main results of a reading of Marx’s Capital in light of his writings on colonialism, which were unknown in the early Marxist debate on imperialism. It aims to prove that, in his main work, Marx does not analyse a national economy or – correspondingly – an abstract model of capitalist society, but a world-polarising and ever-expanding system. This abstraction allows the identification of the laws of development of capitalism and its antagonisms, and reflects the tendency of the capital of the dominant states, by making permanent recourse also to methods of so-called ‘primitive accumulation’, to expand and increase the exploitation of workers worldwide, and, at the same time, the cooperation between them. What, for Marx, was later defined as imperialism is the concrete form of the process of ‘globalisation’ of the capital of the dominant states. With the development of his analysis, Marx became increasingly aware of the economic and political consequences of imperialism. In his activity within the First International, with regard to the question of Irish independence, he affirmed the fundamental importance of building a real solidarity between class struggles in imperialist countries and anti-colonial resistance in colonised and dependent countries. His examination of imperialism and internationalist perspective were downplayed, denied, if not completely reversed in the interpretation and systematisation of his thought by reformist leaders within the Second International. In their attempt to react against this tendency and develop an analysis and a political strategy adequate to the new phase of generalised imperialist expansion, increased inter-imperialist rivalries and rising anti-colonial resistance, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin reaffirmed the centrality of the critique of imperialism at the economic and at the political levels. Even if they were partially unaware of this, they thus developed and expanded on some aspects already present in Marx’s work.

Imperialism and Capitalist Development in Marx’s Capital

in Historical Materialism



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Anderson 2010.


Brewer 1990p. 19. This opinion is shared by Roman Rosdolsky who affirms that only in Marx’s projected books on the state international trade and the world market would Marx have overcome his alleged ‘national’ framework and develop an analysis of ‘the international’: ‘. . . The domestic economy must be understood in its external relations to other capitalist (and non-capitalist) countries and ultimately as one element in a totality which embraces all countries. Only then do we arrive at the category “world market” and the “world economy” as a “rich totality of many definitions and relations”.’ (Rosdolsky 1989 p. 27.)


Harvey 2005ap. 144.


Wood 2006p. 21.


Ashman and Callinicos 2006p. 108.


Rosenberg 2007pp. 458–9.


Marx 1996p. 9.


Marx 1996p. 414.


Marx 1983pp. 3ff.


Marx and Engels 1979p. 222.


Marx and Engels 1980pp. 17–21.


Marx 1996pp. 454–5.


Marx 1996p. 741.


Marx 1996p. 453.


Marx 1996p. 580. For similar formulations see Marx 2008 pp. 73 651. ‘Wir die gesamte Produktion des Weltmarkts als kapitalistisch betrieben voraussetzen’ Marx 2008 pp. 655 697.


Cf. Shaikh 19791980.


See Lapides 1998.


Marx 1996pp. 606–7.


Fawcett 1865p. 227 n. 56.


Marx 1996pp. 606–7. See also Theories on Surplus-Value (Marx 1968 p. 423; and Marx 1971 p. 253).


Merivale 1861.


Anderson 1983p. 74.


Harvey 2007pp. 59 62.


Marx 1996p. 272.


Banaji 2010p. 282.


Marx 1996p. 604.


Luxemburg 1951p. 365.


Marx 1996pp. 764 703.


Williams 1964p. 105.


Marx and Engels 1991pp. 356–7.


Marx and Engels 1992p. 63.


Marx 1998pp. 396–7.


Marx 1996p. 634.


Marx 1998p. 236.


Marx 1996p. 694.


Marx and Engels 1987p. 504.


Marx and Engels 1985bp. 194.


Luxemburg 1951p. 364.


Callinicos 2009p. 146.


Marx 1991p. 515.


Stone (ed.) 1994; Brewer 1989.


Mann 1988.


Marx 1996p. 750.


Marx 1996p. 634. For the problematic relationship between increasing cooperation and autonomous organisation of the working class see note 46.


Marx 1996p. 616.


Marx and Engels 1985ap. 422.


Rosdolsky 1986.


Marx and Engels 1976p. 471; Marx and Engels 1977 p. 365.


Benner 2006p. 171.


See for example Said 1985. Even though I cannot discuss this point in more depth in the present article it is worth mentioning that according to Aijaz Ahmad the idea of the ‘double mission’ of British colonialism in India is not Eurocentric in itself but has to be understood within Marx’s dialectics. It followed the framework of his theory of history and was even a common idea among later anti-colonial nationalists (Ahmad 1992 pp. 226 234). As August Nimtz has shown (Nimtz 2002) Marx’s writings prove that he did not underestimate the importance of the labour of the peasants or their possible revolutionary role nor did he underestimate the persistence of slavery or the coerced wage-labour peculiar to colonial regimes.


Marx and Engels 1983p. 342.


Dunayevskaya 2000p. 83.


Anderson 2010p. 85.


Marx and Engels 1988p. 398. According to August Nimtz this turn is ‘most significant since it makes clear that the revolutionary “lever” for him contrary to the usual Marxological claim did not reside exclusively in the advanced industrialized capitalist world.’ (Nimtz 2000 p. 204.)


Marx and Engels 1988p. 473.


Marx and Engels 1988pp. 473–5.


See Krader 1972 and 1975; Anderson 2010pp. 196–236.


Callinicos 2009p. 48.


Hilferding 1976p. 397.


Bauer 1906–7 p. 489.


Potts 1990p. 102.


Lenin 1996p. 8.


Bernstein 1969p. 177.


Kautsky 1976.


Engels 1993p. 57. In the Preface to Imperialism Lenin affirms that ‘The pamphlet here presented to the reader was written in the spring of 1916 in Zurich. In the conditions in which I was obliged to work there I naturally suffered somewhat from a shortage of French and English literature and from a serious dearth of Russian literature. However I made use of the principal English work on imperialism the book by J.A. Hobson with all the care that in my opinion that work deserves’ (Lenin 1996 p. 1).


Engels 2001pp. 537–8.


Lenin 1977p. 25.


Luxemburg 1951p. 428.


Luxemburg 1951pp. 452–3.


See Harvey 2005app. 143–4.


Lenin 1968.

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