Book Cover

Lenin’s understanding of imperialism and imperial rivalry still best describes the world we face, argues Dan Poulton, reviewing Ernesto Scepanti’s Global Imperialism and the Great Crisis

The Burning Answers

Ernesto Screpanti, Global Imperialism and the Great Crisis: The Uncertain Future of Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 2014), 256pp.

At a time when the old certainties of post-Cold-War western life (a monolithic European Union, relative social and economic stability in the ‘victor’ countries etc.) face being turned on their heads and as imperialist tensions ramp up almost to pre-World-War-One levels, a book analysing the relationship between global imperialism and the financial crisis is timely to say the least.

Amidst the swirl of ruling-class neoliberal propaganda, and often outmoded analysis from some of the left who once led on critical issues such as these, sophisticated and empirically robust analysis is at a premium. Equally desirous are strategies for action.

Ernesto Screpanti’s Imperialism and the Great Crisis offers many non-dogmatic critiques of the prevailing neoliberal and imperialist ideology, and he is not afraid to rip up what he considers outmoded left approaches to grasping the complexities of our historical moment. On one hand, this approach is admirable, and we should all be willing to re-assess old theories to match modern concerns. However, Screpanti’s revisionism, whilst in many ways taking a fresh analytical approach, in fact harks back to a longstanding debate within the anti-imperialist movement: between the theories outlined by Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in his 1916 book Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, and the supporters of theories of so-called ‘ultra-imperialism’, led by Karl Kautsky.

Lenin, drawing on the Marxist tradition and applying it in practice to conditions in Russia, argued that, over time, despite capitalist notions of the ‘free market’ and the global spread of capital, the system would become increasingly centralised. Individual firms hitting the rocks would get bought up by larger firms enjoying the support of their national ruling class. This process of monopolisation would go hand in hand with rival nation states vying to stay on top in an increasingly sclerotic world system. As central as the labour process is to creating value (profits), monopolisation alone would not be enough for a system fuelled by the relentless drive for the accumulation of capital.

This is where finance capital starts to come in. Finance has always been necessary for capitalists to manage the flow of money and investments through the system, but under late capitalism, Lenin argued, it is as if finance becomes an end in itself. Not enough profits can be made by industrial production alone. Layers of financialisation are heaped upon increasingly concentrated capital; this is a parasitical process, leading to decay. Lenin thought that an increasingly crisis prone and warring system opened the possibility of world revolution as these centralised structures could essentially be hijacked and transformed. However he did not take a deterministic view as Screpanti argues, he also understood that no crisis was so great that it could not be borne on the shoulders of the working class, if they let it.

In opposition to Lenin’s understanding of late capitalism, the theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ propagated by Karl Kautsky, held that the centralisation of the system and the formation of inter-state alliances opened the possibility of the collective organisation of states, negating the need for military rivalries as the world could be effectively parcelled out amongst the great powers by committee, so to speak. This view led to the expectation amongst Kautsky and his followers that the conflagration that would be World War One could be avoided by Germany and Britain uniting into a cartel of states where disagreements could be resolved by peaceful means. History shows what a big mistake this view was, which, as well as being theoretically unsound, breeds complacency in the ranks of socialists.

Reinventing ultra-imperialism

Screpanti argues that the theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ criticised by Lenin is effectively correct, that although inter-state rivalries have not gone away they do not represent a fundamental contradiction in the system as Lenin believed. He argues nation states are in fact motivated to reduce major conflicts rather than exacerbate them. Multinational capital is the real leader of the modern capitalist world, the US is merely its ‘global sheriff’ (p.88). Seen from this perspective the new empire, rather than the domination of one state over world affairs, is in essence the domination of fully global imperialism, a system which requires the tripartite leadership of sheriff, banker and growth-driver countries to function, but needs no overall imperial hegemon. In this view the free market corrects any attempts by nation states to follow ‘outdated’ imperialist policies such as those pursued in the pre-World-War-Two era. It also disciplines so-called ‘rogue’ countries that seek to deviate from neoliberal dogma. The market disciplines individual states primarily via speculative attacks, rendering military power less essential.

Screpanti’s update of the ultra-imperialism theory neglects the historical predicates of the modern world system and only makes a rather sketched account of the imperial history of the twentieth century. The ‘global market’ Screpanti is describing was carved out of the post-World-War-Two era by the United States during the Cold War and consolidated in the post-1989 world with the fall of the Soviet Union. This was a period of major military consolidation by the US under the cover of the evolving Nato project which, rather than being disbanded in the post-cold-war era, begat a period of aggressive expansion, the results of which can be seen with painful clarity in the present Ukraine conflict. Many see events in Ukraine (not just the left but bourgeois commentators too) as echoing the kind of great power rivalries that led to World War One. If it is genuinely not in the interests of the major powers to exacerbate military rivalries, none of them appear to have got the memo.


Screpanti’s approach also implies that individual imperialist actors are driven by a rational assessment of the needs of the wider interest of the capitalist system or global markets, and that what interests them as national states is also in the interest of the system as a whole. In fact, there is a fundamental contradiction within capitalism between the interests of the individual capitalist and the interest of the system as a whole. This applies as much to states as to firms.

Screpanti downplays the relationship between military and economic accumulation. His tripartite theory of ultra-imperialist governance implies certain roles are assigned to states in the best position to carry them out. In Screpanti’s view of the construction of the world imperial setup much of the heavy lifting is done by the ineffable global market. This is to take a determinist, systems-theory style approach to understanding geopolitical structures. ‘Sheriff, banker and driver’ are seen as emergent properties of a ‘hydra’-like system that has no conscious leadership, nor a need for one.

There are odd parallels with neoliberal thought in Screpanti’s critique of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. The ‘hidden hand’ seen as responsible for delivering market equilibrium by neoliberals appears to be hovering behind the strategic diktats of Washington, London and Berlin. Of course it is true that national states often, probably most of the time, operate under conditions not of their choosing. The current Syriza government of Greece, to take a contemporary example, would like to find itself in a European Union that can protects workers’ rights, where it can lift the debt burden that brought its society to the brink of collapse, whilst maintaining access to a single market. But the system won’t allow that, in fact it cannot deliver that. (The role of the EU, which, incidentally, Screpanti describes very well, is to increase competitiveness with the ‘emerging market’ countries, this means pushing down wages and living standards to compete with Chinese sweatshop workers and Brazilian peasants.) A recent example of the US forging market conditions is the controversial TTIP agreement which is an attempt to set the economic agenda of European countries in alignment with itself.

By viewing the markets as dominating the nation state and the United States as a mere henchman of global capital, Screpanti mistakes Medusa for a Hydra. If we look at the world’s highest concentration of military powerit clearly belongs to the US. Looking at the concentration of wealth we see similar concentrations in North America. If we look at the global distribution of the world’s wealthiest 1%(all 47 million of them), the top 5 countries look like this: 38% live in the U.S, 8.5% in Japan, 7.4% in France, 6% in the UK, Germany 6%.

It is true that China’s economy is rivalling the US but it is not there yet and Chinese financial security is in fact pinned to its US investments and its growth tied to the fortunes of the US and Europe, its main export regions. US military aggressiveness is a compensation for the relative decline of its economic might. Screpanti has more explaining to do to show how US decline won’t translate into increased military tensions.

The US and imperialism

Quite how the global market is to intervene against US-led western military expansion is not explained. Outside of an anti-imperialist movement capable of preventing further war, the chances of avoiding a conflagration in the not too distant future look slim at best. There is a naked danger in our present geopolitical moment to which Screpanti is strangely blind.

It is the neoliberal order led by the US that disciplines or attempts to discipline those who dare engage in ideological heresy. Even then, adherence to strict neoliberal policies is often a secondary necessity compared to basic acquiescence to America. Germany wanted to play hard ball with Greece’s attempts to roll back austerity. Screpanti would describe this as a product of outmoded imperialist policies on the part of Berlin. Yet their policies are only outmoded to the extent to which they lag behind the diktat of Washington. Obama’s recent intervention to soften German belligerence towards Greece over Athen’s anti-austerity policies is a case in point. If there’s a desire to keep the EU together within Europe, the US feels this protective impulse even more keenly. The Europe of the neoliberals is the product of US imperialism; the project has been carefully shepherded to fruition by Washington since the Marshall Plan.

The role of military discipline is subordinate to financial discipline, Screpanti argues, because speculators can simply discipline state actors by withdrawing investments from countries that deviate from free-market principles. Screpanti is skilled at revealing the mechanisms by which this is done. However, a key question is how state actors relate to the global market and how those markets are constructed in the first place. Screpanti seeks to show a horizontal network of autonomist firms which can simply rely on emergent phenomena like speculative attacks rather than strategic state-controlled actions such as military deployment.

Screpanti asserts that:

‘it therefore can be said that the imperialism Lenin spoke of, far from being the highest stage of capitalism, was effectively only a transitory phase: that in which the larvae of the big multinational firms have grown within the cocoons of the nation-state before breaking out and soaring off into the world economy when they reached global proportions…’ (p.50).

Yet, far from there being a generalised distribution of capital across the globe, rendering state actions ineffective, the global network of capital has areas of extreme concentration which count for more than the whole. One author of a 2007 study concluded that:

‘You start off with these huge national networks that are really big, quite dense. From that you’re able to … unveil the important structure in this original big network. You then realize most of the network isn’t at all important.’

This process is at work in the totality of the global system as much as it is within countries.

This concentration reflects a generalised concentration under capitalism, observed by Lenin in keeping with Marx’s groundwork, not in contradistinction. Autonomists can lay little claim on Marx. This can be seen by Lenin’s State and Revolution which is very close to Marx’s reflections on the nature of the state.

Concentrations of capital and power

The highly concentrated nature of domestic capital is in keeping with the view that, despite the globalisation of the system, concentrated power resides within national boundaries. A further concentration exists, exposed by discrepancies between states. The New York Stock Exchange has more capital than the combined values of all other exchanges. The world’s biggest stock exchanges are located in North America, Japan, Britain, the Euro Zone, China/Hong Kong, Canada, India, Brazil … in that order. In a broad sense these countries span a dividing line between neoliberal orthodoxy and more state-interventionist forms of market control (China vs. America being opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard).

Screpanti explains this in his excellent analysis of the failures of the globalisation project but loses sight of the analysis when drawing conclusions about the imperialist setup. Far from there being a single, emerging way of organising capital (i.e. neoliberalism), nation states make conscious decisions on how best to control their economies. That is to say that politics, far from being relegated as a secondary concern as Screpanti would have it, remains central. This means that socialists have a key role to play in intervening in the sphere of national politics and cannot simply focus on the economic struggle, as Screpanti argues.

There is a direct correlation between the concentration of wealth and the major world powers. Capitalist concentration boosts the power of nation states, rather than diminishing them. Screpanti sees the waning of Lenin’s conception of imperialism in the post-war world. But surely many recognise in today’s conflicts the characteristics outlined by Lenin that dominated those wars:

‘The war of 1914-18 was imperialist (that is, an annexationist, predatory, war of plunder) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital.’

Although we live in a post-colonial world in a formal sense, we see the colonial impulse in the occupation of Palestine, and the attempts to forge pro-western governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We can see how those neo-colonial projects exacerbate tensions between the major powers. The US may be currently at the negotiating table with Iran, but not that many months ago brinkmanship was the name of the game. It was only the west’s inability to launch a conventional war in Syria (take a bow, the anti-imperialist movement) in order to destabilise Iran that put that mission onto the back-burner.

One can quibble over the exact nature of colonialism in modern times by comparing and contrasting Lenin’s times to ours, nonetheless it seems clear that war for the ‘influence of finance capital’, whether in aggressive-economic or overt military forms, is a central feature of today’s geopolitical moment.

A 2011 study of over 43,000 transnational corporations found that 40% of the wealth of the companies was owned by just 147 firms, a minuscule 0.34% of the total. Of the top ten corporations listed in the study six were American firms, two British, one French and one Swiss. This massive concentration of wealth was central to Lenin’s understanding of capitalist development and is borne out by the evidence.

The world of today matches Lenin’s analysis perhaps more strongly than in any time over the last sixty years. The peace established in Europe following World War Two has never looked more fragile and the threat of great power conflict perhaps more real than even at the height of the Cold War.

The volatility of the world economy, the widening of inequality and the failure of pure capitalist orthodoxy open up the potential for class conflict. Yet this process is mediated by imperialist power structures. Imperialist interventions in the Arab world effectively derailed the process of grassroots democratisation that was the Arab Spring and resulted in a region riven by conflict, a widening pool of failed states and barbaric reactionary forces such as ISIS. Socialists need to see intervention against their government’s imperial policies as an essential dimension of the wider class struggle, not as a second-grade occupation or worse a distraction from a distinct economic sphere.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.