Sunday, January 3, 2016

Capitalists and Imperialism

The relationship is a favourite of Marxists and even other leftists, and the usual line is: capitalism is inherently imperialistic.

But is it? There are different forms of capitalism, and, above all, laissez faire ideology is not monolithic, and it comes in different forms.

And it’s rather obvious that some of the most vehement capitalist ideologues are also the most vehemently anti-imperialist. Just think of Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul.

For instance, just take Ron Paul’s comments in the videos below.

Libertarians hate government and have historically been vehemently critical of imperialist aggression even by capitalist states. And Murray Rothbard’s view of American foreign policy, for example, had obvious similarities to that of Noam Chomsky.

If one takes the libertarian ideology seriously, then it does indeed have strong anti-war and anti-imperialist aspects, as can be seen, for example, on the popular website, which is run by American libertarians. But it is also the most extreme laissez faire and pro-capitalist ideology too.

Marxists and others barely recognise this, and instead reduce laissez faire ideology to a monolithic caricature.

Nor is the anti-war and anti-imperialist stance unique to modern libertarians. Classical liberalism – which was also strongly laissez faire – also had its anti-imperialist wing, and so much so that it even annoyed Karl Marx who was dismayed to find that the British Manchester school’s view of war and imperialism was opposed to Marx’s own cult-like views on capitalism.

The most famous instance of this was the Crimean war of October 1853 to February 1856. Marx was vehemently pro-war because of his anti-Russian phobia and urged even more aggressive action against Russia than Britain and France actually took (Sperber 2014: 304). But what really made Marx apoplectic and drove him mad was that John Bright (1811–1889) and Richard Cobden (1804–1865), the most popular and vocal advocates of laissez faire and free trade in England, were hostile opponents of the Crimean war (Sperber 2014: 305).

At one point during the Crimean war, Marx launched into an astonishing rant about the anti-war capitalists:
“One thing must be evident at least, that it is the stockjobbers, and the peacemongering bourgeoisie, represented in the Government by the oligarchy, who surrender Europe to Russia, and that in order to resist the encroachments of the Czar, we must, above all, overthrow the inglorious Empire of those mean, cringing, and infamous adorers of the golden calf.” (Marx 1897 [1853]: 132).
Wait a minute, Marx was ranting about... those wicked “peacemongering bourgeoisie”? According to Marx, those vile peace-loving, peacenik capitalists of Europe had to be overthrown so that a communist Europe was free to wage total war against Tsarist Russia.

A final issue is simply this: the Communist world of the 20th century was also guilty of its own form of imperialism. The Soviet Union, for example, was just a continuation of the multi-ethnic Russian empire, which had conquered vast swathes of the non-European world in central and northeast Asia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The Soviets continued to rule these areas as the new imperial overlords, and in ways so vicious and brutal that they made 19th century European empires look mild. And this is before we get to Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

The truth is that whenever great powers arise in the world – whether capitalist or communist – they will almost inevitably be drawn into some form of hard or soft imperialism on the world stage. That is a reality.

Marx, Karl. 1897. The Eastern Question. A Reprint of Letters Written 1853–1856 Dealing with the Events of the Crimean War (eds. Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling). S. Sonnenschein & Co., London.

Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.


  1. Fabulous quote, and good observations.

    My personal thought is that imperialism occurs when there is substantial private ownership or control of the state. The more concentrated the wealth (usually capitalist), the more incentive there is to use the state as an implement to increase that wealth.

    1. Imperialism is a "social parasitic process by which a moneyed interest within the state, usurping the reins of government, makes for imperial expansion in order to fasten economic suckers into foreign bodies so as to drain them of their wealth in order to support domestic luxury" - Hobson

  2. Surely the claim of Lenin etc. is that Capitalism as a system is inherently imperialistic, not that people who support capitalism must always support imperialism?

    1. Lenin copied from Hobson. And then the idea become part of state religion in the soviet union.

  3. The Crimean War! What a strange and fascinating period in recent history!

    I read some articles about that period, and there are quotes from people of those times about how Russians planned to conquer all of Europe and covert everyone to "their Orthodox heresy".

    Seen from today, it all seems terribly paranoid.

  4. Imperialism is not synonymous with war, nor even with a nation protecting its interests. That's just "having a foreign policy."

    Also, the idea that the Soviet Union was imperialistic deserves some explanation, rather than simply asserting it as though it's some self-evident fact. The relationship of Russia to the other Soviet states was not one of domination and extraction, but cooperation; if anything, the records show that other Soviet states tended to benefit at Russia's expense. And I'm not sure which of those states were "taken over." Even your one concrete example, Afghanistan, was a situation of internal upheaval that only prompted Soviet intervention long after Western powers had been bankrolling brutal, regressive mujahideen rebels to overthrow a young democratic government.

    As someone familiar with history, I'd gladly take the USSR over the Belgian Congo, British India, etc., any day.

    1. "a young democratic government."

      That's Soviet-speak for a communist, one-party state.

      "I'd gladly take the USSR over the Belgian Congo, British India, etc., any day."

      The British didn't need to turn India into a prison to stop the people from escaping.

    2. The relationship of Russia to the other Soviet states was exactly one of domination and extraction and brutal enslavement. Entire zones (Ukraine, Kazakistan) were exterminated and repopulated. Are you sure you're an historian instead of a disinformation agent?

    3. And even if we ignore the occasional genocides and gulags, the records tend to show that the occupied countries were exporting primary resources and the relatively more advanced processing was done in the center. Indeed, even "modern Russia" is a large redistribution machine from resource rich east to Moscow (on a per capita basis). You're just a paid troll i think.

  5. Lord Keynes: Have you ever read “The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia” By Tim Tzouliadis? I paid full price in 2009 and it was worth it. You can now buy the book for pennies. The book provides the “touch and feel” of Stalin’s USSR as one giant Auschwitz. Further, none of the hip socialists who came from outside the USSR to live in the new paradise made it out alive. I would be interested in your opinion of this book.

    1. I've not read it, but from the review below, it seems like just another good account to add to the mountains of evidence on what a nightmarish torture chamber the Soviet Union was.

      Also, a testimony to how delusional Western Marxists/communists are to his day and clearly were back then. Terrible that American people brainwashed by the Marxist cult discovered in such a horrible way how bad their communist "paradise" actually was.

    2. I do not agree with any of Anne Applebaum’s criticisms of the book. The aspects of “getting sidetracked” give the book the context she also claims the book lacks. In addition to the fate of the Americans in the USSR, the author gives the personal stories of famous European Marxists who relocated to the new paradise. Not only did their embassies not care about their fate, neither did the world-wide masses of Marxists and leftists, a situation that continues to this day. Each of these stories would make for an excellent motion picture. Even today, leftists will still not touch the subject with a ten foot pole. That suggests to me that they know they have something to be ashamed of.

      CBS showed a “made for TV movie” about Victor Herman back in 1982. The only way to see it now is to purchase a very poor quality (and expensive) VHS tape (my copy does not track properly) even though Herman meets a prisoner in the gulag played by Willie Nelson.

      The book is easy to read and much more interesting than the usual account because of all the personal stories contained therein and the description of the non-response of the worldwide left to their fate.

  6. I have always wondered why the USSR, Vietnam, China etc are called communist. From my knowledge communism is a stateless, classless & moneyless society, so in my mind it confuses me because communism hasn't existed (save for native American society which I think still had a class system. Wouldn't it be better to call them Socialist countries?