From colonies to sweatshops: How modern-day imperialism differs from Lenin’s time

August 10, 2023
Bangladesh garment factory
A Bangladeshi garment worker. Militarised borders have converted countries such as Bangladesh into cheap labour reserves. Photo: Solidarity Center/Flickr. CC By SA 2.0

John Smith is the author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis. He spoke with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the realities of 21st century imperialism. This is the first of a two-part interview.

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The term imperialism is used to describe different scenarios and, at times, has been replaced by concepts such as globalisation and hegemony. What value remains in the concept of imperialism and how do you define imperialism?

There are two possible ways to approach the task of defining imperialism.

An obvious “common sense”, and I would say pseudo-scientific approach, is to begin by noting that many empires predated capitalism by millennia; indeed, imperialism is as old as class society itself.

From this starting point, the next step is to list the features that all these empires have in common. Arguably, there are just two: violence, usually but not necessarily involving direct territorial rule; and plunder, the uncompensated appropriation of wealth. Of these, the second is surely paramount. Invariably, violent subjugation of one society by another is motivated by plunder.

From this point of view, all forms of class society are prone to imperialism; furthermore, since all forms of class society are, by definition, characterised by the violent subjugation and exploitation of the toiling majority by the exploiting minority, imperialist behaviour beyond a society’s borders is always a continuation of domestic class rule.

But generalisation of what different empires and imperialisms throughout history have in common tells us nothing about what distinguishes them from each other, nor why any of this happened. The result, in other words, is a superficial description that seeks to explain everything but actually explains nothing.

The methodological approach advised by Vladimir Lenin is radically different. Instead of recording features common to very different forms of imperialism, Lenin’s starting point was the contradictions intrinsic to the capitalist relations of exploitation.

Armed with this, he proceeded to analyse a mass of empirical data to show how these contradictions worked out in real life, propelling capitalism along an imperialist trajectory — an historic process that was still in its infancy when Lenin wrote his famous 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

There he wrote: “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practised imperialism. But ‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality…

“Even the capitalist colonial policy of previous stages of capitalism is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.”

The last sentence in the quote from Lenin above is especially important. It suggests that the neo-colonial policy of finance capital is also essentially different from the colonial policy that existed in Lenin’s time. It suggests that it’s absurd to expect to find in his writings from more than 100 years ago a concrete concept of contemporary imperialism. Indeed, to seek to do so is to turn Marxism into its opposite — from a science into a dogma.

What all this means is that, to achieve a really concrete concept of imperialism — one that can explain its contemporary specificity and serve as a guide to action — we must combine deduction from general principles concerning the nature of capitalism with analysis of all relevant empirical data on its actual stage of development; on how rival capitalist classes attempt to use state power to advance their interests; on how class struggle at home is interrelated with class struggle on a global scale, etc.

That’s the approach that I adopted in my book. With what result? My chief finding was that the global shift of production processes to low-wage countries signified a qualitative leap in the globalisation of the capital-labour relation: more than ever, capitalists’ profits in imperialist countries rely on surplus value extracted from super-exploited workers in low-wage countries.

What Lenin called “the essence of imperialism”, that is the division of the world into a handful of oppressor nations and the great majority of oppressed nations, has now become internal to the capital-labour relation itself.

That’s why, if capitalism is a generic term denoting the extraction of surplus value from men and women with no property, imperialism is nothing else and nothing less than a synonym for capitalism’s current stage of development.

Lenin’s text on imperialism came at the dawn of the imperialist stage of capitalism. How much, if any of it, remains relevant today?

Lenin’s work remains extremely relevant. But we need to view it as a historical document and understand the context in which it was written.

Lenin’s Imperialism was a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, which sought to understand World War I and why the leadership of workers organisations had, in the face of war, abandoned socialism and delivered their class as cannon fodder to their rulers.

An important principle of materialist dialectics is that there cannot be a concrete theory of a phenomenon until that phenomenon has attained a mature stage of development.

Marx could not have written Capital had he been born 30 or 40 years earlier, as industrial capitalism — the object of his study — had not yet fully evolved by then.

When Lenin was writing about imperialism, he was doing so at the start of capitalism’s imperialist stage. This new form or stage in capitalist development was only incipient and important changes have occurred in the century since then.

In the early 20th century, capitalist social relations had only become generalised within imperialist countries; the dominated countries were still largely pre-capitalist social formations, where capitalism was only incipient.

The relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations was a relationship between capitalist countries and pre-capitalist countries. That is not the case today.

What relative weight does something like the export of capital have today as a mechanism of imperialist exploitation, as compared to the past?

Lenin argued that the export of capital was one of the defining features of imperialism since the working class within developed capitalist countries was neither large enough nor could they be exploited enough — without pushing them to the brink of rebellion — to sustain an ever-greater accumulation of capital.

But if we examine the so-called neoliberal era, we find that capitalism has found another way of capturing surplus value created in China or Bangladesh, without necessarily having to export capital to those countries.

To illustrate this phenomenon, imagine a T-shirt made in Bangladesh and bought from a store here in the United Kingdom. I might pay £20 for that item of clothing. Of that, at most £1 of the final sale price appears in Bangladesh’s GDP. The other £19 appears in the GDP of the UK, the country where the item is consumed.

This led me to ask a very simple question: how much of the UK’s Gross “Domestic” Product — which is the sum of the prices of all final goods sold in a country — is actually produced domestically?

So, how does this transfer of wealth occur?

To understand how this happens, we must fill in some of the gaps in the oversimplified illustration I have just given.

The values of commodities are determined by the quantity of labour-time required for their production, but the prices of these commodities are determined through competition, entailing the redistribution of value from labour-intensive branches of production (for example, the garment industry) to capital-intensive branches of production.

If this did not happen, capitalists deploying expensive machinery and few workers would never make profits, since living labour is the sole source of commodity value.

But values are also redistributed through the absence of competition, that is, through monopoly in all its different forms, resulting in extra profits for the monopolists and meagre profits for the rest.

The Bangladeshi garment industry suffers from both of these effects. The global buyers acting for the clothing chains monopolise access to Western consumer markets and force their suppliers into ferocious competition with each other, imposing producer prices far below the minimum necessary to enable their Bangladeshi suppliers to provide safe workplaces or living wages.

Much more could be said about this, but we cannot leave this subject without mentioning one exceptionally important factor: restrictions on the free movement of labour across national borders.

Commodities freely pass through borders, so do the machines and raw materials used to make them; ditto the profits realised through their trade. Even the Bangladeshi capitalists can pass through borders at will.

The only exception are the workers who make our clothes. Militarised borders have converted countries such as Bangladesh into bantustan-like cheap labour reserves, where competition between desperately poor people for jobs of any kind forces wages down to the level of basic subsistence and even below.

Here we see how intrinsic racial and national oppression is to contemporary globalised capitalism. Earlier, we called this imperialism. We could just as easily call it global apartheid.

[Abridged and edited from a much longer interview at]

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