Educational: Imperialism

Date: 27 June 2023

Author: Indescribled


Tags: Internationalism, Economics

Important Terms

Common Misconceptions

Trade/Capital Export is imperialism—Imperialism has specific features, intent, and its own era. Trade or Capital Export, on their own, are not indicative of imperialist tendencies, in the same way that investments, on their own, are not imperialist. 

Socialist countries can be imperialist—A socialist state cannot be imperialist. To be imperialist is to be capitalist. “‘social-imperialists’, that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds” - V.I. Lenin

Note: Data for this article was taken on June 3rd, 2023.


When Marx and Engels initially wrote the Communist Manifesto and analyzed capitalism, they discussed the tendency of capitalism toward monopoly and outward expansion of capital. Around the dawn of the 20th century, after Marx and Engels had both passed, the global situation of capitalism changed, in accordance with their analysis.

Corporations are driven by the profit motive to grow and compete with each other, but once a company becomes large enough, competition actually becomes increasingly difficult for smaller ones. The larger company has massive wealth, infrastructure, and power set up to maintain their control over industry in order to actively grow their share of the market; which often means swallowing other, especially smaller, companies. The dawn of the 20th century is characterized by companies starting to grow to these massive levels, giving them near total control of whole industries and excluding competition—this quickly forms a monopoly.

Banks were not immune from the trend of monopolization. Banking monopolies formed, and simultaneously banks gained a new role. They were no longer simply a storage facility for money. Instead, they turned that inactive money into capital. This caused industry and banks to become closely intertwined. The newly monopolized banks increasingly invested and loaned money within industry—owning large portions of companies and vast capital. Along with ownership and coercion, banks further intertwined with industry by placing their own representatives within the industrial companies and vice versa. The union between banks and industry is called—Finance Capital.

The union of banking and industry meant a level of strength and exploitation which had never before been seen—a new era of capitalism had been born, monopoly capitalism. Finance capital’s new power led to a rate of monopolization that had also never before been seen, and the idea of free competition resolutely ended. As monopolization within each developed capitalist country occurred, the demand for profit drove capitalists globally to seek more profits, markets, and labor.

Features of Imperialism

When referring to imperialism, the most common understanding of the term is Vladimir Lenin’s analysis of the new age of monopoly capitalism with five specific characteristics:

Let’s take a look at each feature:

Feature 1: Creation of monopolies due to concentration and development of production and capital

Lenin’s analysis is that imperialism and monopolies moved to the new stage of capitalism around 1900-1910. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. We’ve probably all seen the diagram below, showing an example of modern monopolization, and also how it can be mystified by the names and logos on product packaging. The picture is similar, or even more dire, in other industries. For example, Amazon has around 40% share of the United States’ ecommerce market, Apple has about 57% of the phone market, Nike 38%, Disney 50%, and so on and so on. 

Each of these companies, with a gigantic market share, have more than just a lot of money: they use their funding for political gain. For example, in 2021 Amazon had 180 lobbyists in 44 states according to Reuters, influencing policy throughout the country

Feature 2: Creation of a financial oligarchy—the merging of bank and industrial capital

Corporations often no longer own a lot of their capital; it is truly owned by the bank, and merely loaned to the corporation. Such an arrangement gives the banks immense sway over the policies and actions of the company. For example, in the US, only three banks possess around 40% of the market in regard to deposit amounts. Such a share of the market in a small group of people gives them massive power through their ability to dictate vast amounts of capital. One modern day example is the relationship between Pepsi, Bank of America, and The Vanguard Group, Inc.:

Similar to Feature 1, these banks also have huge political sway, with many lobbyists on their payroll, as well as industrial sway with the intertwined executives of banks and industry. One example is Lionel L. Nowell III, who as of June 3rd, 2023, is the Lead Independent Director at Bank of America and the former Senior Vice President and Treasurer at PepsiCo.

These examples are limited in scope but represent a variety of similar actions and relationships between bank and industry capital. Such a web of interconnection is the basis for finance capital.

Feature 3: The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance

Capitalism has been exporting commodities for years, but imperialism favors something else—the export of capital over the export of commodities. What’s the difference? Instead of simply selling a commodity abroad, a company might invest money into land and infrastructure in a country with the specific intent of making money and gaining political influence. For example, building privately-owned railroad infrastructure in order to transport commodities from a factory, which is also owned by such a company, to a (likely also privately-owned) port in order to export those goods elsewhere. The imperialized country in such a situation likely gets little to no benefit from the exchange because an outside corporation owns the entire process. 

Feature 4: Formation of international monopolist associations to divide the world among themselves. AND Feature 5: Completion of global territorial division among the biggest capitalist powers

These features are where a larger global application comes into play; when discussing imperialism, the global aspect must be emphasized. International associations include the World Bank, IMF, and NATO—which will be discussed in a later section. Capitalist powers referenced include France, England, Germany, and the United States, to name a few.

These capitalist powers engage in territorial division, such as the “Scramble for Africa”, named as if it were a board game, when it was actually the robbery and destruction of the whole continent for the gain of the invading capitalists—colonialism. The imperialist countries of Europe rushed to conquer the vast majority of the African continent, having devastating impacts that are still felt over a century later. However, just because the world was divided in a certain way at one point does not mean that imperialists stop trying to change the division to benefit themselves. 

World War I

One of the largest ways the division of the world occurs in the age of imperialism is through war. War is profitable: industry goes into overdrive, labor rights are put on hold, and sights set on potential profits drive the cause. Such a situation cannot go on forever, as it uses massive amounts of resources at a rate quicker than they can be provided. Consuming so many raw materials is unsustainable, and pressure begins to build within all countries to end the conflict, because it quickly becomes unprofitable. Eventually, the war will end and the winner(s) will take their plunder—money, land, and power. 

Such was the content of World War I, the first global-scale example in the era of imperialism. WWI was caused by the three main contradictions of imperialism coming to a head. These three contradictions in question are:

These contradictions are present in the results of WWI:

The financial crisis in post-WWI Germany was extreme due to the reparations, so vast that it was questionable if it was even possible to pay them back. The military restrictions and financial impossibility placed on the country after WWI were two primary factors that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and German fascism only 20 years later. These financial issues were falsely blamed on the Jewish, Roma, and others, such as the communists; and over the course of the next decades, these prejudices would become the fuel for the creation of death camps, and the mass murder of millions in what is today remembered as the Holocaust.

World War II

The start of WWII is usually considered to be when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, after which Germany went on to invade and control a large portion of Europe, as well as leading campaigns in Africa and the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Japan, allied with Germany, was also trying to expand its territory through invasions of Indochina, China, dozens of islands throughout the Pacific, and numerous attacks on British and American territories; the most well-known instance being the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. The Axis powers were threatening the interests of the Allied powers, bringing the global contradictions to a devastating head once again.

The general contradictions noted in WWI can also be seen in the results of WWII:

“Its purpose was to secure peace in Europe, to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom—all of this in the context of countering the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union.”NATO

“Established after World War II in an attempt to maintain international peace and security and to achieve cooperation among nations on economic, social, and humanitarian problems.”—UN Charter

By the end of 1945, there were about 350,000 US troops in Japan. Six years later, after the security-pact with Japan was signed in 1951, almost 300,000 US soldiers remained in the country. Japan wanted to surrender to the US instead of the Soviets out of fear of the Soviets establishing a socialist government. The US wanted a capitalist ally in the Pacific due to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, as well as the various revolutionary movements. General MacArthur helped create such an ally by working with Japanese leaders to write the country’s new Constitution, while many previously fascist war criminals would serve as the Japanese government’s officials overseeing its implementation.

The Allies rejection of Stalin’s proposed neutrality in Germany was perhaps out of fear that the newly unified Germany would align with the Soviet Union if given the option. Instead, Germany remained divided in two parts, in conflict for the next 40 years, and served as one of the many fronts of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the US had 250,000 troops in West Germany, as well as an equal number of employees and family members, with bases all across the country. 

The US, in contrast to Europe, was not destroyed in WWII; it made massive profits with the war economy, and the only bombs dropped on the country were at Pearl Harbor. There was a unique opportunity to “help” the rest of the world with loans, such as the Marshall Plan and more to rebuild the battered shells of Europe and Japan. After WWII, these conditions facilitated a shift in global power: the UK became the most debt-ridden country, losing its spot as the leading superpower; overtaken by the US.

Israel is a settler-colonial project and an imperialist outpost. Israel is committing apartheid against Palestinians in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory. Zionists take the resources of Palestinians, threaten and often murder innocent people, steal their land and homes, and commit numerous other violent atrocities. The sovereignty of Palestine is actively suppressed by the US-supported Zionist government.

NATO, the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank are all likewise puppets of US and western imperialism. These will each be discussed in more detail in a later section.

Imperialist wars create a potential breeding ground for proletarian revolutions. We’ve seen it clearly twice, after each World War. The weakening of all capitalist combatants provides an opening for proletariat revolution, given the appropriate circumstances.

Fall of The Soviet Union

The Cold War pushed anti-communism and imperialism to a fervor. The US and other capitalist powers spent decades interfering in foreign elections, invading sovereign countries, launching coups, and using their massive financial and military weight to dictate who can trade with whom. The only other major alternative was the Soviet Union until 1991. 

The fall of the Soviet Union was one of the most tragic events in modern history, leading to massive death, destruction, poverty, violence, and more. As Michael Parenti called it, the “Free-Market Paradise Goes East”. As there was no longer a socialist government in place to protect workers, the imperialist vultures were able to descend, and have their way with the resources and livelihoods of the people below. In the Soviet Union, the imperialists saw massive opportunities for profit, for the continuation of feature 5; the re-division of the world. Industries that were previously state-owned were ripe for the taking. Housing became privatized, and millions were left homeless or unemployed. 

The aftereffects of the fall of the USSR were felt not just in the previous Soviet states. Before its collapse, the USSR gave countries an option for trade and alliance outside of the United States—outside of the West. Such an option protected developing countries from the US and their imperialistic practices. Once the USSR collapsed, countries often had little option but to trade with the US and their allies that engage in predatory lending, forced dollarization, as well as political and economic coercion. Military personnel and bases are a staple of the US’s coercion, with bases and troops in over 80 countries. 

Imperialism in the 21st Century

Let’s explore a few of the most well-known organizations that serve Western imperialism on the global level in the 21st century:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was founded with the mission of seeking to “build a framework for international economic cooperation.” But the actual power-balance is anything but cooperative. The United States possesses 16.5% of the voting share in the IMF, nearly triple the next highest share, held by Japan at 6.14%. Some major IMF decisions require an 85% super-majority, meaning the US can single handedly reject any proposal with its voting share. Essentially, any major decision must have US backing to pass—must be approved by the largest imperialist power.

Loans given to countries come with many strings attached, each of which is tied to the power of finance capital. For example, in 2010, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych asked the IMF for a loan, but was frustrated by the conditions associated, which included:

The situation experienced by Yanukovych is not unique. China’s MFA recently noted that the 1,550 debt relief programs offered by the IMF between 1985 and 2014 were accompanied with 55,465 political demands. 

The IMF is not the only example of a force of global finance capital—another is the World Bank. In early 2022 the World Bank had debts and agreements with Kazakhstan, so it forced that country on a track of what they called Green Development—meaning privatizing the nationalized oil and gas sector. The dismantling and forced neoliberalization immediately led to a spike in prices and a lowering of the standard of living, sparking mass protests in several regions. These genuine concerns were in turn used as cover for an attempted color revolution, which was shown by US funded NGOs at the time.

When NATO was founded, 10 of the 12 founding countries had received aid from the Marshall plan (the other two were the US itself, and Canada), and in the early 1950s West Germany also joined. NATO explicitly listed its founding reason as countering the Soviet Union—making itself a force for capitalism and against socialism. NATO was so committed to being an anti-communist force that it allowed many Nazis from defeated Germany to join, for example:

NATO has, and still does, engage in numerous violent acts in order to prop up capitalism and Western imperialism. A few such NATO campaigns have included: the bombing of Yugoslavia, of Libya, and expansion to the point of igniting the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022.

The United Nations often adopts resolutions, but outside of Security Council ones, they are not actually binding. The UN gathers countries together in the General Assembly to make recommendations based on world opinion, but that is all they are: recommendations. Let’s look at a few recent examples:

Since the resulting decisions are merely recommendations, these are a sort of faux democracy and a mockery of international cooperation. While the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution, and the People’s Republic of China to this day, continue to fight for the upholding of the spirit of the UN charter, all real progress is consistently undermined by the US and its imperial lackeys. Despite 185 countries voting to end the blockade, the US simply ignores the will of nearly every country in the UN in order to further its own imperialist interests. 


Capitalism leads to monopolies in their continued drive for profits; free-market “competition” is a myth. Such monopolies are able to dominate the markets and accumulate massive wealth. Lenin’s analysis noted the merging of bank and industrial capital, of which he expanded on and described five primary features of the era of imperialism. World War I was one of the primary results of the new era, which led directly to the rise of fascism and World War II. Following World War II, the United States became the dominant imperialist power, fighting with the Soviet Union in the Cold War for over 40 years until the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. In the 21st century, there is a new Cold War; with the United States as the dominant, but waning, imperialist power and China as the rising socialist superpower. 

The era of imperialism is the era of monopoly capitalism. Defeating imperialism is directly tied to the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Recommended Reading on Imperialism

Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin

Foundations of Leninism by Josef Stalin

Blackshirts and Reds by Michal Parenti

Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism by Kwame Nkrumah

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney