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On the History of Imperialism Theory

Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE) is based in Mumbai, India. The unit publishes the journal Aspects of India’s Economy and a range of research publications in English and Hindi. RUPE’s Behind the Invasion of Iraq (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), written prior to the U.S. invasion of that country, is still an extremely valuable source on the current war. See the reply by John Bellamy Foster

In his illuminating survey, “The Imperialist World System: Paul Baran’s Political Economy of Growth After Fifty Years” (Monthly Review, May 2007), John Bellamy Foster remarks that “The concept of the imperialist world system in today’s predominant sense of the extreme economic exploitation of periphery by center, creating a widening gap between rich and poor countries….had its genesis in the 1950s, especially with the publication fifty years ago of Paul Baran’s Political Economy of Growth.” While acknowledging that traces of such a concept could be found in Marx and Lenin, he feels that “The classical Marxist approach to the worldwide spread of capitalist relations has often been characterized as a crude theory of linear stages of development” whereby the less developed countries would necessarily traverse the same path as the more developed ones. Among the adherents to this view Foster includes Marxists in the Second and Third Internationals.

While we agree that this view was—and remains—a powerful and baneful influence, it cannot be ascribed to the Third International (the Communist International, or Comintern) as a whole. Neither the Bolsheviks, nor the Comintern which they set up, nor Mao and the Communist Party of China (CPC) under his leadership, subscribed to a crude linear theory. Indeed, they pioneered the theory of imperialism, including the analysis of the specific social formations generated by imperialism in the colonies and semicolonies. This is of course in no way to diminish Baran’s distinct contributions, which are outlined by Foster.

The Bolsheviks’ Conception of Imperialism

Marxist anti-imperialism, worldwide, virtually was born with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.1 The Russian proletariat seized power in an imperialist country, and was immediately confronted by the armies of the imperialist powers. Thus the Bolsheviks viewed their revolution as forcing the first breach in the fortress of imperialism. But further, they proclaimed their “firm determination to wrest mankind from the clutches of finance capital” and insisted on “a complete break with the barbarous policy of bourgeois civilization, which has built the prosperity of the exploiters belonging to a few chosen nations on the enslavement of hundreds of millions of working people in Asia, in the colonies in general, and in the small countries” (“Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People,” January 16, 1918). This stance gave enormous impetus to anti-imperialist movements worldwide and thus dealt a great blow to imperialism. Moreover, the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War demonstrated that imperialist armies could be defeated by an oppressed people. The reverberations of the Bolshevik Revolution were felt in the May Fourth Movement in China (1919), the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation in India (1919), and the revolt in Iraq (1920), to take just three examples.

In Lenin’s keen dialectical view, imperialism did play a dual role in the colonies and dependent countries, but that role was not—as the linear-stage theorists would have it—one of dissolving the earlier social basis there and initiating capitalist development as such. Rather, it was, on the one hand, of despoiling and plundering these countries, and, on the other, of drawing them into international politics, and thus hastening the independent activity of their peoples in the fight to overthrow international imperialism. By 1919, he characterized the approach of the world revolution as one in which “the civil war of the working people against the imperialists and exploiters in all the advanced countries is beginning to be combined with national wars against international imperialism.”2

He noted that the tasks of the communists of the “imperialist-oppressed countries” were “still greater and newer” than those of the Bolsheviks: “you are confronted with a task which has not previously confronted the Communists of the world”—linking the awakening bourgeois nationalism in those countries, which was historically justified, with the international revolution. “You will have to tackle that problem and solve it through your own independent experience.”3 Indeed the theory of imperialism was to develop in the closest association with the fierce anti-imperialist struggle.

The Comintern’s View

Though the Third International was formed at Lenin’s initiative at a time (1919) when proletarian revolution in Europe, rather than anti-imperialist revolution in the colonies, was on the immediate agenda, it accorded high priority to the anti-imperialist struggle. Lenin presented his “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” at the Second Congress (1920) himself. Far from maintaining that imperialism would spread the same social relations in the colonies/semicolonies as developed in England under the capitalist mode of production, the Comintern maintained that imperialism blocked social development by preventing the completion of the bourgeois revolutionary tasks (that is, the economic, social, and political changes wrought by the people of the capitalist countries in the course of overthrowing feudal rule). This is precisely why various Comintern congresses, starting with the Second Congress, called for the communist parties of colonial and semicolonial countries to press for the completion of those tasks.4 At the same time, the Comintern explicitly did not assume that the bourgeois democratic revolutionary tasks would have to be accomplished under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. (We will return to this point later.)

At its Second Congress, the Comintern adopted “Supplementary Theses” to Lenin’s theses, describing the distorted pattern of development in the colonies:

Foreign imperialism, imposed on the eastern peoples, prevented them from developing socially and economically side by side with their fellows in Europe and America. Owing to the imperialist policy of preventing industrial development in the colonies, a proletarian class, in the strict sense of the word, could not come into existence here until recently. The indigenous craft industries were destroyed to make room for the products of the centralised industries in the imperialistic countries—consequently a majority of the population was driven to the land to produce foodgrains and raw materials for export to foreign lands….Foreign domination has obstructed the free development of the social forces, therefore its overthrow is the first step towards a revolution in the colonies.5

Indeed, the Comintern later argued that it was only with the weakening of the imperialist bonds that even limited growth of productive forces took place in the colonies:

It is precisely this [post–First World War] weakening of imperialist pressure in the colonies, together with the increasing rivalry between various imperialist groups, that has facilitated the development of native capitalism in the colonies and semicolonial countries which are outgrowing the narrow framework of the domination of the imperialist great powers….6

Incidentally, this passage anticipates a point later made in the “development of underdevelopment” thesis.7

Documents of the Comintern Congresses repeatedly stressed that imperialism allied with the most backward, feudal, reactionary elements for both political and economic reasons. The “foreign imperialists in all the backward countries convert the feudal (and partly also the semifeudal, semibourgeois) upper classes of native society into agents of their domination.” “Vitally interested in securing the greatest profits with the least expenditure of capital, imperialism strives all it can to maintain in the backward countries the feudal usurious form of exploiting labor power.”8

The Comintern’s views were most elaborately expressed in 1928 in its Sixth Congress “Theses on the Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies and Semi-Colonies.” Since the text is too long to reproduce, we shall summarize some of its significant points.

  1. While the colonies suffer pains similar to those of early capitalist development, they experience none of the progressive results. Whereas capitalist development develops productive forces, colonial forms of capitalist exploitation transfer surplus value to the metropolis and hinder the development of productive forces. There is a limited development of production (note: not “productive forces”) in the colonies, to the extent required by the metropolis. Infrastructure is created for the same purpose. The colonial country is compelled to sacrifice the interests of its independent development to become an appendage of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Imperialism is parasitic.
  2. New crops and new systems of irrigation are introduced in place of those destroyed by colonial policy, in order to widen the raw material base for imperialism. While agricultural production is geared toward export, its precapitalist features are preserved, given monetary expression, and subordinated to finance capital. The drawing of the village into the sphere of monetary and trading economy leads to pauperization; since there is no industrial development, it does not lead to proletarianization. This creates extraordinary “pressure on agriculture,” resulting in agrarian immigration, rack-renting, and fragmentation. Usury is added to the burdens of the peasantry. Agriculture witnesses a simultaneous fall in productivity and in demand for labor power. Peasants are unable to raise their technical and organizational level because direct exploitation and unequal exchange leave them no surplus. Big land ownership does not take the form of large-scale agriculture—just extortion of rent from a large number of peasants.
  3. Mineral wealth is exploited for the needs of the metropolis. Colonial production does not carry out all the stages of manufacture, but is limited to individual branches of industry. Real industrialization, in particular the building of a flourishing engineering industry which might make possible independent development, is hindered by the metropolis. The equilibrium of separate branches of production is destroyed. The colonial country is forced to give up independent development to become an appendage of foreign capitalism.
  4. The poverty of the peasantry denotes a crisis in the internal market for industry, which in turn represents a powerful obstacle to capitalist development. Instead of the development of a national internal market, the scattered internal colonial trade is adapted to the needs of export.

Few would claim the Comintern as a whole, and all its important functionaries, were always consistent in their views, or free from errors. Yet the Comintern’s role in developing the theory of imperialism can hardly be overlooked.

A Bourgeoisie Incapable of Leading a Bourgeois Revolution

As the theoretician of the twentieth century’s most important revolution in an “imperialist-oppressed country,” Mao Zedong had to confront and grapple with the social formation in China generated by imperialism. He noted that “As China’s feudal society had developed a commodity economy, and so carried within itself the seeds of capitalism, China would of herself have developed slowly into a capitalist society even without the impact of foreign capitalism.”9 No doubt penetration by imperialism helped disintegrate China’s social economy, and gave rise to certain objective conditions and possibilities for the development of capitalist production in China; but this was only one aspect of the change it wrought. The other aspect was that imperialism colluded with feudal forces to arrest the development of Chinese capitalism. Mao characterized the stage of social development of China as distinct from that of both feudalism and capitalism; he termed it “semifeudal, semicolonial.”

In 1926 itself, in his “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society,” Mao laid out the distinct typology of classes found in such a society. The ruling classes of China, that is, the landlord class and the comprador class, were appendages of the international bourgeoisie; they “hinder[ed] the development of productive forces.” Particularly significant was his division of the Chinese bourgeoisie into two sections, “comprador” and “national,” which according to him roughly corresponded to the “big bourgeoisie” and the “middle bourgeoisie.” The comprador class is “a class which directly serves the capitalists of the imperialist countries and is nurtured by them; countless ties link it closely with the feudal forces in the countryside.” The national bourgeoisie, on the other hand, though stifled by imperialism, is weak and flabby, and vacillates between fighting imperialism and fighting the revolution.

One would expect the bourgeois democratic revolution to be led by the bourgeoisie. But in China, the most powerful section of the bourgeoisie was in fact set against the bourgeois democratic revolution, and was one of the main targets of the revolution. The other section was incapable of leading it.

From the late 1920s, a further development took place within the comprador bourgeoisie of China: the top section developed a peculiar form of monopoly capital, linked to the levers of state power (in a manner which recalled the precapitalist monopolies).10 In “The Present Situation and Our Tasks” (1947), Mao refers to the “four big families” who have “monopolized the economic lifelines of the whole country. This monopoly capital, combined with state power, has become state-monopoly capitalism. This monopoly capitalism, closely tied up with foreign imperialism, the domestic landlord class and the old-type rich peasants, has become comprador, feudal, state-monopoly capitalism….This capitalist class, known as the bureaucrat-capitalist class, is the big bourgeoisie of China.”11

Baran’s characterization of the classes through which foreign capital exercises control over the underdeveloped countries has much in common with Mao’s:

first…a group of merchants expanding and thriving within the orbit of foreign capital….secondly the native industrial monopolists…who entirely depend on the maintenance of the existing economic structure, and whose monopolistic status would be swept away by the rise of industrial capitalism….The interests of these two groups run entirely parallel with those of the feudal landowners powerfully entrenched in the societies of the backward areas….What results is a political and social coalition of wealthy compradors, powerful monopolists, and large landowners dedicated to the defense of the existing feudal-mercantile order….this coalition has nothing to hope for from the rise of industrial capitalism which would dislodge it from its positions of privilege and power.12

Bourgeois-Democratic Tasks, Proletarian Leadership

The path of revolution in such societies must differ from that in capitalist societies. What was needed was an analysis in the true spirit of Marx, one that both upheld the laws of historical development and fully embraced historical contingency. Thus neither the Bolsheviks nor Mao thought that a “bourgeois revolution” was necessary in the form of a revolution led by the bourgeoisie. Rather, the Comintern provided for, and Mao insisted on the necessity of, the bourgeois democratic revolution being completed under the leadership of the proletariat. In discussing his draft theses in 1920, Lenin stated:

The question was posed as follows: are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations now on the road to emancipation and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal—in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development….with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.

By the Fourth Congress this was more explicit:

The objective tasks of colonial revolutions exceed the limit of bourgeois democracy by the very fact that a decisive victory is incompatible with the domination of world imperialism.13

While the 1928 “Theses on the Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies and Semi-Colonies” state that the immediate goal in the revolution is “to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution,” the very first of the “general basic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the colonies and semicolonies” includes “overthrow of the power of the exploiting classes at the back of which imperialism stands; organization of soviets of workers and peasants; establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry; consolidation of the hegemony of the proletariat.” Thus the character of the revolution is bourgeois-democratic in its tasks, but not in its leadership.

Mao therefore referred to this as the new democratic revolution:

In this era, any revolution in a colony or semi-colony that is directed against imperialism, i.e., against the international bourgeoisie or international capitalism, no longer comes within the old category of the bourgeois-democratic world revolution, but within the new category….although its objective mission is to clear the path for the development of capitalism, it is no longer a revolution of the old type led by the bourgeoisie with the aim of establishing a capitalist society and a state under bourgeois dictatorship. It belongs to the new type of revolution led by the proletariat with the aim, in the first stage, of establishing a new-democratic society and a state under the joint dictatorship of all the revolutionary classes. Thus this revolution actually serves the purpose of clearing a still wider path for the development of socialism.14

The principal bourgeois-democratic task, the axis of the entire revolution, according to the Comintern and Mao, is the agrarian revolution. Of this Baran says:

if it [agrarian reform] comes about in spite of obstruction on the part of such a government, as a result of overwhelming pressure of the peasantry—in other words, if it assumes the character of an agrarian revolution—it represents a major advance along the road to progress. Indeed, it is indispensable in order to eliminate a parasitic landowning class and to break its stranglehold on the life of an underdeveloped country. It is indispensable in order to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the peasantry and to secure the foremost prerequisite of all economic and social development: the release of the creative energies and potentialities of the rural masses held down and crippled by centuries of degrading oppression and servitude. And it is indispensable because only through a distribution of land among working peasants can the political and psychological conditions be attained under which it is possible to approach a rational solution of the agrarian problem: cooperative, technically advanced farms operated by free and equal producers.15

Later Baran refers again to “the agrarian revolution—bound to form an integral part of the social revolution in most underdeveloped countries—splitting up large estates and abolishing rent payments by the peasantry”16 as a necessary first step to socialism.

Baran thus integrated into his work the contributions of the Comintern and Mao. But the historical context in which he wrote was new: one in which, after the Second World War, colonialism was being replaced by neocolonialism, and this shift was being celebrated as the “independence” of the third world. In the concrete conditions of the 1950s, Baran showed how mere formal independence, in the absence of an alternative path of development, actually perpetuated the subordination of these countries to imperialism. Crucially, the adoption of such an alternative path depended on the correlation of class forces in the country.


1. The focus of Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (published in mid-1917) was on analyzing the nature of monopoly capital; its immediate context was the imperialist world war. Hence it did not explore the impact of imperialism on the colonies and semicolonies. However, it did refute the Second International misconception that capitalism would be evenly, steadily, and peacefully diffused worldwide; and replaced it with the conception of a monopoly capital marked by sharply uneven development, crisis, and predatory wars.
2. “Address to the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organizations of the Peoples of the East,” November 22, 1919. In the same speech, he further says: “the socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie—no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.”
3. Lenin, “Address to the Second All-Russia Congress.”
4. Doubtless there were several members of the Comintern who held the view that imperialism generated development, but it would not be fair to attribute to the Comintern all the disparate views held by individual members. (For example, such views apparently were debated in the 1928 congress, and defeated.) The congress documents are a more authoritative source.
5. “Supplementary Theses” to the Second Congress (1920) “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions.”
6. Fourth Congress (1922) “Theses on the Eastern Question” the same point is made in Mao’s “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party” (1939).
7. Andre Gunder Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment,” Monthly Review, September 1966.
8. Fourth Congress, “Theses on the Eastern Question.”
9. “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party,” Selected Works, vol. 2,
10. See Ho Kan-Chih, A History of the Modern Chinese Revolution (Peking, 1959), chapter 7, section 2, for an account of the rise of this class.
11. Selected Works, vol. 4,
12. Political Economy of Growth, Indian edition, 231–32.
13. Fourth Congress “Theses on the Eastern Question.”
14. “On New Democracy,” Selected Works, vol. 2.
15. Baran, Political Economy of Growth, 202.
16. Baran, Political Economy of Growth, 312.