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Imperialism: In Tribute to Harry Magdoff

William K. Tabb taught economics at Queens College for many years, and economics, political science, and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Economic Governance in the Age of Globalization (Columbia University Press, 2004), Unequal Partners: A Primer on Globalization (The New Press, 2002), and The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2001). He can be reached at william.tabb [at]

This essay was prepared for “Remembering Harry Magdoff,” a roundtable discussion of Harry Magdoff’s work on May 6, 2006, at the Brecht Forum in New York.

Imperialism is the system by which a dominant power is able to control the trade, investment, labor, and natural resources of other peoples. It takes different forms in different stages of capitalist development and has elements in common with the imperium of ancient empires. I want to lay out these structural elements, contrast them with the mainstream economists’ view of exchange regulated by free market principles, and then discuss the specific form imperialism takes in our own time. Any essay on this subject written from the left must acknowledge the influence of the writing of Harry Magdoff and on this occasion his influence is highlighted.

Empire and the Stages of Imperialism

Within an imperial system there may be one or more empires, which directly or indirectly control territories, their people, and their resources through the deployment or threat of military force. Different empires may compete within a larger imperial order; domination may be informal and control indirect. There were of course empires before there was capitalism. Athens exercised imperial control through the Delian League in an imperium financed in part by its tribute-paying allies who were formally sovereign governments, generally with their own democratic assemblies. The decisions that mattered with regard to foreign policy and even their significant domestic matters were decided by the Athenians. These allies employed the Athenian currency in their commercial dealings and Athens installed garrisons among the allies to keep them in line.

The Athenian empire may have been informal but “each of the subordinate allies was aware that the Athenian fleet lay over the horizon, and no subordinate capital was more than a day’s march from the sea.”1 The empire of classical Rome, inseparable in many of our minds from the countless Hollywood epics with marching legions and “hail caesar,” was the product of a revolution in the commerce of the ancient world such that Rome could mobilize on an extensive scale the resources to feed these legions and move them over vast distances. Yet there were long periods of the Roman Empire, particularly in the second century A.D., when “years could pass between sighting of a soldier in provincial towns within the borders of the empire….Rome’s signal achievement…lay in not needing administrative coercion in much of the day-to-day life of the empire.”2

Most analysts speak of imperial Rome in terms of empire, reserving the term imperialism for the capitalist era in which expansionism is driven by the dynamics of accumulation, although in the contemporary unipolar world the term empire, as in U.S. empire, has come back into vogue as a way of talking about the imperialism of our time. In this application the United States can be seen as having followed a pattern of indirect regime change, destabilizing governments it does not want to remain in power from Allende in Chile to attempted coups against Chávez in Venezuela. Where such plotting and financing of coups does not work a permanent psychological warfare attempts to exhaust popular support for the regime—as the United States has long attempted in Cuba (after its failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and the exiles’ defeat at the Bay of Pigs), and in Iran which is threatened with military attack and subjected to diplomatic pressures on its sovereignty by the United States and its European allies. It does not matter whether the regime in question has been repeatedly democratically elected as in the case of Chávez in Venezuela or the result of a revolt against a U.S.-installed government as in Iran.

The usage of the term U.S. empire is most popularly invoked however with regard to the so-called Bush Doctrine of preemptive attack on any country his administration declares a danger to the United States. Such naked unilateral aggression with the “shock and awe” of aerial bombardment, the modern equivalent of the gunboats of an earlier age of imperialism, achieved regime change in Iraq as prelude to a grand design on the Middle East and other oil producing regions of the world. To date this hubristic adventurism is proving costly, producing unforeseen consequences, including strengthening the forces opposed to U.S. imperialism and producing a growing opposition to the Bush administration at home. This failure suggests the need always to pay attention to the contingent realities even as we attempt to theorize the larger logic that may appear to be at work. Had Bush succeeded in Iraq our understanding of contemporary imperialism would likely have been quite different. In this regard Harry Magdoff has two specific things to teach us about imperialism. The first is the importance of historical contingency. The second is the usefulness of analytically separating stages of imperialism.

In considering the long sweep of the history of imperialism and the logic of expansionism in capitalist state development, Magdoff might have recalled Engels’s remarks in his preface to the third volume of Capital where he addressed the complaint that Marx did not give enough definitions of the terms he used. Engels noted that the complaint rested “upon the false assumption that Marx wishes to define where he only investigates, and that in general one might expect fixed, cut-to-measure, once and for all applicable definitions in Marx’s work. It is self-evident,” Engels observed to the contrary, “that where things and their interrelations are concerned, not as fixed, but as changing, their mental images, the ideas, are likewise subject to change and transformation; and they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions, but are developed in their historical or logical process of formation.”3

In his own writing, Magdoff suggested that there have been five stages of capitalist expansion—while warning that there was extensive overlap between stages and that the influence of accidental factors adding to the richness of history “tend to controvert the neat packaging of distinct periods.”4 He provided a brief and masterful summary of each stage and explained the global transitions: from direct robbery, looting, plunder, and piracy in the first wave of European overseas expansion at the end of the fifteenth century; through the domination of commercial capital from the seventeenth to the late eighteenth century; to global intercapitalist rivalry, the rise of industrial capital, and the new imperialism; and then to the stage of decolonization and the rise of the multinational corporation. Magdoff provided a useful template as we try to see with equal clarity how ongoing technological and regime innovations influence imperialism and the global order. History moves on and as we try to produce a cohesive understanding of imperialism in the present era of globalization we look for both continuity and change in the methods and the logic of imperialism.

For Marxists the history of capitalism since the beginning and continuing to this day has been the history of imperialist expansion. The system was always global. Colonization was global. The slave trade was global. The world was not shaped by peaceful negotiations between and among equals. Nor is this the case today. Despite the commonalities, the different stages of imperialism as Prabat Patnaik has written, “are distinguished by the precise manner in which this drama is enacted and the degree of success it has in doing so.”5 Imperialism “is always about the expropriation/appropriation by metropolitan capital of the resources, assets and wealth of all other countries all over the globe.” In the past imperialism has taken the form of both direct rule under colonialism and regime change on a wide scale in support of indirect rule—as alternative options with which to provide access on favorable terms for the business interests of the core countries. Outright invasion is relied upon when indirect methods do not work.

In the current period much is made of the frequent assertions by the Bush administration that they seek no territorial conquest. This is disingenuous of course. Imperialists have always preferred indirect rule where possible. Early on this was not adequate and direct colonialism was deemed necessary. By the mid-nineteenth century indirect rule was well established in parts of the periphery (particularly Latin America). Hence, today the need to send in a proconsul, like Paul Bremer or Jay Garner in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, has to be seen as a failure so far as there is a return to direct rule. Ideally the United States wants the military bases it has spread over the surface of the world in more than seventy countries to be less visible. Ready as needed but not the first weapon for holding its dependencies in line. The first line of control these days are the directives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO).

It is useful to point out that when imperialism is the central concept in understanding the evolution of the world capitalist system, it stands in stark contrast to the bourgeois approach.

Imperialism Deniers

Classical economists and other mainstream theorists of capitalist development note that empires acted in an imperial fashion appropriating wealth and territory in the past, but they have long denied that such practices were rational for governments in market societies. The reason neoclassical economists dispute that anything approaching imperialism could have been sensible policy—as David Hume, Adam Smith, and others had explained—is that any country powerful enough to coerce economic relations would be better off following free trade policies.

The Smith-Hume view in its modern incarnation is that while globalization has always been in the general interest, colonialism and imperialism were unfortunate parts of the past, that were never good for the colonizer country. The costs of conquest, occupation, and the narrowing of economic relations to the metropole-colonial trade on a regulated basis were never as efficient as free trade would have been. In direct descent from such a view is Joseph Schumpeter’s characterization of imperialism as an atavistic remnant surviving from an earlier age which would tend to disappear with the “progressive rationalization of life and mind” that accompanies a capitalist economy. Imperialism would decline in intensity as the competitive system absorbed the full energies of most people at all economic levels. “It may be stated as being beyond controversy that where free trade prevails no class has an interest in forcible expansion as such,” Schumpeter wrote.6

What drives capitalism is not some imaginary free market with its consumer sovereign but rather capital’s drive to accumulate. Imperialists seeking to exploit peoples and resources wherever they find vulnerable social formations make their calculation exclusive of the cost to their own nation’s treasury, except to the extent they themselves bear any burden of expenditure. The saturation of domestic markets and the drives to lower cost, find new sources of profit, and employ technological revolutions for accumulation purposes combine to drive capitalism outward. Trade was rarely initiated, as the economists’ model would have it, out of free consent for mutual advantage between core and periphery. In the early stages of imperialism—of plunder and piracy—this was self-evident and overseas expansion required a very different rationale.

An effort was necessary at the level of ideological reformation to appeal to idealism and declare a very different logic for capitalism. Such a view involved appeals to the white man’s burden and the mission to civilize the savages, which are consonant with contemporary claims to be spreading democracy. Such justifications seemed reasonable to the extent the citizens of the imperialist power accepted a nationalism that flattered them as the leaders of humankind with the responsibility to help those who sit in darkness, to draw on Mark Twain’s sardonic figure of speech. Economists preach the virtues and universal benefits of free trade, the nationalists manifest destiny, and the idealists the generous impulse of spreading their near perfect social and political arrangements to the rest of the world—economic expansion and the military conquest dressed in raiments of imperialism for their own good.

From a marxist view successful capitalism needs the national state to overcome internal barriers to the creation and smooth operation of its home market and to protect its traders’ and investors’ interests abroad in a world of rival states. So if the drive to expand and to encompass the world market is given in the nature of capitalism as Marx suggested, then imperialism is not an accident but integral to its operation and logic. The drive to compete does not presume, as the mainstream economists would have it, an ideal of perfect competition as the tendential norm and starting point of analysis, but the use of state power on the part of the strongest elements to intervene on behalf of their power to exploit and extort rules favorable to the greatest appropriation of surplus. As innovations in transportation and communication develop so does the capacity to more deeply penetrate other social formations.

In this regard, Magdoff quoted a 1879 letter from Marx to Nikolai Danielson: “Railroads…steamships…were…the means of communication adequate to the modern means of production…they were the basis of immense joint stock companies, to commerce by banking companies…they gave in one word, an impetus never before suspected to the concentration of capital, and also to the acceleration and immensely enlarged cosmopolitan activity of loanable capital, thus embracing the whole world in a network of financial swindling and mutual indebtedness, the capitalist form of ‘international’ brotherhood.”7

Those who take imperialism seriously think that the models mainstream economists construct underspecify and misspecify the way trade and growth are connected and incorporate assumptions (such as full employment of all resources in a competitive marketplace) that do not model actual capitalism’s character. As Patrick O’Brien writes “In order to measure the costs and benefits that might have arisen from a disembodied imperialism they have resorted to an analysis based upon an altogether unrealistic counterfactual; namely, an international economic order, operating between 1688 and 1815 under competitive conditions, virtually free from governmental interference with trade and untroubled by warfare.”8 Such counterfactual economic theory that presents “free trade” as the dominant reality even in the colonial era itself has then been used to argue that the burdens of colonies and the imperial military apparatus outweigh their benefits since free trade is more efficient and more beneficial to both parties.

Hence, we can easily understand the effort to replace imperialism as an analytical construct with globalization; it is based on the presumption of equal negotiation and exchange. This same presumption is now being read back into the history of the nineteenth century and the years for which imperialism has been an organizing explanatory construct among economic historians.9

While from a critical realist perspective such ahistorical assumptions are not acceptable, in some formulations they were convincing to mid-nineteenth-century contemporaries who believed that imperialism did not pay for the Europeans. In the political realm, Cobdenites followed this logic by preaching free trade and advocating the abolition of trade barriers. Disraeli, in 1852, just decades before the period of high imperialism, famously said, “These wretched colonies will all be independent in a few years and are millstones around our necks.”10 Bismark in 1868, shortly before he embarked on a policy of imperial expansion, expressed a similar perspective, “all the advantages claimed for the mother country are for the most part illusory.”11 Despite such views expressed in the writings of economists and other advocates of liberalism, as tensions grew among European powers, the high politics of war and diplomacy triggered competition and one form the rivalry took was a new wave of imperialist expansion into regions not previously colonized. Technology and science were, as always, handmaidens to such conquest, as progress in such areas as tropical medicine and machine gun technology reduced the dangers of such undertakings.

Rejecting the Imperialism of Free Trade

To argue that free trade would have been the more cost-effective policy in previous periods of imperialist expansion is to see the world inhabited by English shopkeepers rather than facing up to the consequences of the social, economic, and cultural norms of actually existing societies of the time that attracted imperialist attention. Despite the promised benefits of free trade, the problem was often that the locals were uncooperative. Perhaps this was because they did not play by the textbook rules as rational economic individuals or because the Europeans introduced trade as piracy and conquest. Even under other terms, often the natives just were not interested in trade. This was particularly a problem in China where there was much the British desired but little the Chinese wanted from the British. One product they could market, if the Chinese government would only let them, was opium. When the Chinese insisted on banning this product Prime Minister Palmerston asserted the right to free trade. He dispatched ships of war to bombard Canton and other port cities, and after sufficient devastation the Chinese admitted to the rightness of the principle of free trade in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, one of the world’s first free trade treaties. It also established free trade zones in China.12 There is an interesting progression between the first Opium War and the second (1856–60) in which the British, joined by the French, had the dual function of sustaining the rule of the existing Chinese government against the Taiping Rebellion and opening the interior of China to the West, expanding its penetration beyond the small number of trading ports granted in the Treaty of Nanking. The frame of trade expanded as did investor rights.

Counterfactual history is a difficult, if not in most instances an impossible, business. But it is not without interest that in 1820, according to Angus Maddison’s calculations, Asia generated 59 percent of global GDP (by purchasing power parity measure); in 1950 just 18 percent of world GDP.13 It is difficult to think that foreign intervention and conquest had nothing to do with this huge relative decline. When a post-Maoist government sought an opening to the West on its own terms, these disgraces were a vivid memory. Thus they desired a carefully calibrated economic policy that would allow them to control this process. Developmental states have found industrial policy can be used effectively as in Japan and Korea. The activities of the IMF and the WTO as directed by the countries of the core can be read as acting to prevent the possibility of state-led development, once practiced by the now developed economies. There continues to be a need for active interventionist policies to establish and maintain what has been called “free trade,” and military intervention and the threat of use of overwhelming force remain central tools of the imperialist project.

In light of all this what can be said of the character of imperialism in our own time?

In the second half of the twentieth century there was a shift from the postwar period of national Keynesianism, de-colonization, and neocolonialism to the present stage of neoliberalism. Global economic governance institutions (the IMF, WTO, and others) have been used to force open the markets of the South and to manage the new debt peonage which keeps most of the former colonial world in bondage—unable to set an independent course toward development or to break out of the capitalist order.

Earlier in the century the United States used the Open Door policy to dispute economic relationships in regions where other imperial powers had established claims. U.S. policy makers after the Second World War supported independence movements and the dismantling of colonial empires so U.S. businesses could make inroads and the U.S. state could gain influence in these countries.

After the Cold War the United States turned its back on regimes and leaders it had put in place as bulwarks against the threat of progressive anti-imperialist movements. With one superpower on the world stage, these repressive regimes had suddenly become liabilities—hence the focus on “democracy.” A rising middle class and managerial elite provided better local partners to transnational capital. The rent seeking, corrupt, and heavy-handed local rulers were now seen as extortionists. In the new stage of globalized neoliberalism they were a handicap to foreign investors who wanted to avoid paying tribute for licenses. So transnational capital demanded a local state that would protect property rights as defined by foreign firms.

Democracy U.S.-style meant elections which could be won by media spending and moderate pro-business partners. Democracy did not extend to the right of workers to organize or voters to obtain protections from the greed of capital. We might think of the present period as moving beyond neocolonialism to a fuller integration of peripheral states into a world system. This can be seen by comparing the present dispensation with that of neocolonialism, which Harry Magdoff described as “the existence of considerable foreign direction over a nominally independent nation. In its narrowest sense, this means a high degree of influence over a country’s economic affairs and economic policy by an outside nation or foreign business interests, usually entailing influence over political and military policy as well. In addition, the term is used to suggest the predominance of the culture and values of the former colonial powers.”14

The main tools of imperialism in this part of the twenty-first century are the impositions of the global economic governance institutions and the naked threat and deployment of “shock and awe.” The latter seeks to force people everywhere to accept regimes pre-approved by the imperialist states—above all by the most reactionary factions of the U.S. ruling class. The debt relation, as managed by the IMF and the World Bank, and the imposition of constraints on state-led autonomous economic development paths under the coercion of WTO regulations (so-called investor rights, intellectual property, and other inside-the-border rules) have served as key tools leveraging imperialist control and extraction of surplus from the Global South.

Global neoliberalism as an instrument of imperialist domination forces privatization of state enterprises, turning them over usually at bargain prices to capitalists, often to foreign investors from the core countries. Core governments push such policies as liberalization, opening local markets to transnational capital, lower taxes on capital, and a smaller role of government through deregulation of markets and reductions in the social wage. Thus peripheral states have been reorganized in form and function by the global economic governance institutions to maximally extract locally produced surplus and allow its appropriation by foreign capital and its local collaborators.


Imperialism is a capacious category and its usage has stretched from control and rivalry over foreign markets to the face of conquest and regime change. The role of corporate and financial interests in removing obstacles to trade and investment is of course hardly absent in the current imperialist adventure in Iraq. An administration deeply entangled in oil and defense contracting has thus lied its way into what is proving a painful quagmire. The application of the Bush Doctrine has pushed to the background the framework which has guided the polices of his father’s administration and the Clinton White House—the expansion of U.S. power through the creation and modification of trade and investment relations on a global terrain. We are reminded by today’s events that imperialism is above all about defending and expanding global control. This involves two tactical avenues: military force and political governance. The two go together although not always in overt ways.

Twenty-first-century imperialism is about neoliberal globalization. The regimes for trade, finance, and investment of the global economic governance institutions—the IMF, the WTO, and others—are nonetheless supplemented when imperialism believes it necessary by the old standby of military conquest and horrific violence. Washington’s arrogance of invasion and regime change, of naked imperialist ambition, is in our time a failure—in all but its ability to inflict horrendous cost on its victims. It has given rise to a vibrant antiwar movement and the dissatisfaction of tens of millions of Americans who have recently become more aware of the arrogance of imperialist power.

Much of the world stands in opposition to the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld replay of the tactics of nineteenth-century European imperialists, given their violent disregard for human life in their grab for control. The harsh conditionalities imposed on debtors—which included recessionary demands for lower taxes on foreign capital, surrender of national resources at bargain basement prices through privatization, increased unemployment, and a reduction in provision of pubic services—were to be the key to a promised land. But it never materialized. after decades of the failed Washington Consensus, left-wing governments have taken power in Latin America, the continent where neoliberalism was first imposed in the early 1980s.

The category of imperialism also provides a conceptual frame for a counter-hegemonic interpretation that helps mobilize opposition to the false hegemonic understanding of what is in the interest of the majority of the world’s people. As Sarah Bracking and Graham Harrison wrote in Monthly Review a few years ago, “Imperialism has almost always been a concept used to evoke a critique of the global political economy: to identify the inequities of what is now called ‘globalization’ to condemn the bullying tactics of Western states; to investigate the cultural arrogance and discursive authoritarianism of liberalism’s marriage to ‘freedom, equality, property and Bentham,’ that is capitalism. Imperialism has also been associated with potential struggle as a device to identify oppressive forces working at an international level as a means to political action.”15

But in our time it is also much more clearly evident than in earlier eras—in which the organized element of the working class of the core was often seen as a “labor aristocracy”—that imperialism is a class-based phenomenon: one that enlists workers of the core as cannon fodder and as taxpayers for its imperialist adventures. Imperialism, it is now more than ever apparent, has intensified techniques of exploitation at home not altogether different in kind (though varying in degree) from those imposed upon the peoples of the Global South. Perhaps for the first time in world history the objective conditions exist for class-conscious workers in all parts of the world to see how the system operates to their common detriment. This raises the possibility of an internationally unified response for workers everywhere on the ever more pressing question of what is to be done.


  1. Michael Doyle, Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 56.
  2. Doyle, Empire, 98.
  3. Magdoff quoted this passage from Engels’s preface to volume 3 of Capital [(New York: International Publishers, 1967), 13–14] as part of an e-mail discussion of the shortcomings, although he would not put it this way, of something I had written about imperialism.
  4. Harry Magdoff, Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 99.
  5. Prabhat Patnaik, “The New Imperialism,” presented at the IDEAs Conference on “The Economics of the New Imperialism,” Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, January 22–24, 2004, 11.
  6. Joseph A. Schumpeter, “Sociology of Imperialism,” in Richard V. Clemence, ed., Essays of Joseph A. Schumpeter (Cambridge: Addison-Wesley Press, 1951), 91.
  7. Marx to Danielson, April 10, 1879, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965) 298.
  8. Patrick O’Brien, The Eighteenth Century, vol 2 of The Oxford History of the British Empire, J. P. Marshall (ed.) (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1998), 75.
  9. For an example of such work see Jeffrey G. Williamson and Peter H. Lindert, Does Globalization Make the World More Unequal, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 8228; and American Inequality (New York: Academic Press, 1999).
  10. David Thompson, Europe Since Napolean (New York: Knopf, 1966).
  11. Thompson, Europe.
  12. Simon C. Smith, “Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815–1914,” in British Imperialism, 1750–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), chapter 7.
  13. Angus Maddison, Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  14. Magdoff, Imperialism, 73.
  15. Sarah Bracking & Graham Harrison, “Africa: Imperialism Goes Naked,” Monthly Review (November 2003), 14.
2007, Volume 58, Issue 10 (March)
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