US soldiers in southern Iraq. Photo: US Navy / Public Domain US soldiers in southern Iraq. Photo: US Navy / Public Domain

Dragan Plavšić examines the roots of imperialism and how to oppose it

Counterfire’s Socialist Explainers series

The best way of getting a handle on what imperialism is to get a handle on how capitalism works.

Capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system. Competition defines its essential character. From banks to oil corporations, from supermarkets to car manufacturers, a permanent ‘war of all against all’ is being fought for market share. But competition is never just economic. Corporations weaponise every means at their disposal –for example, by currying favour with politicians – in order to outdo competitors at whose hands they otherwise risk rack and ruin.

Indeed, competition must by its very nature have winners and losers, producing intensely uneven results. Some corporations come out on top while others go to the wall. Some people accumulate wealth while others lose their jobs. Some areas of a country prosper while others stagnate or decline. Extreme unevenness is inevitable in a system based on competition.

Capitalism first took secure hold in Britain before going global. And when competition went global, the weaponising of every available means to overcome foreign competitors in conditions of extreme unevenness also went global, giving rise to imperialism.

As nationally successful corporations outgrew domestic limits and sought markets and resources abroad to enhance competitiveness, states weaponised the economic, political but especially the military means at their disposal to provide corporations with the decisive advantages needed to outstrip their competitors from other states. Thus, the competition that characterised relations between corporations within states came to characterise relations between states.

The extreme unevenness afflicting national economies now afflicted the global economy. Some economies dominated world markets while others struggled to make ends meet. And the stronger the economy, the greater the political and military power of a state to project itself beyond national limits.

The result was a hierarchy of states ranked by their concentrated economic, political and military weight. The states at the apex of this hierarchy were ‘imperialist’ as they possessed the power to dominate weaker states across the globe,if necessary by force.

But hierarchies based on competition sit on treacherously shifting sands. As one global imperialism rises, it must do so at the expense of another. As a result, theirstruggles have world-destructive consequences for us all.

Thus, Britain was the foremost imperialist state of the 19th century, exercising its power by colonising large parts of the globe. By the turn of the century, however, it was challenged by Germany, with the ensuing struggle between them decided by the horrendous slaughter of the First and Second World Wars.

By 1945, with Britain exhausted and Germany defeated, the US emerged as the leading imperialist power. Opposed by Russia, an imperialist power based on a type of state capitalism, their Cold War brought us to the very brink of nuclear self-annihilation.

The US won the Cold War, since when it has been the supreme imperialist state. But today it is under challengefrom the emerging imperialist power of China. As a result, the prospect of a new and terrifying Cold War now looms over us.

If there is to be an effective political response to this from the left, a clear and determined focus on opposing our own imperialism will be essential. The UK is the key partner of the US.Mass protests can thwart the UK’s plans to support the US, but also weaken the alliance between them.

The main enemy is at home, therefore. This principle has guided the campaigning work of the Stop the War Coalition (the massdemonstration it organised in 2003 came close to preventing the UK’s participation in the Iraq war). It should guide anti-war activists in imperialist states everywhere.

socialist-explainers-1-lg.jpg Now part of a published collection of socialist explainers.



Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).