Rethinking imperialism: past, present and future

Issue: 126

Gilbert Achcar

A review of Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity, 2009), £17.99

“Knowing Empire is part of fighting it”: this short statement concludes this remarkable 280-page book. It is certainly one of the most outstanding works in Alex Callinicos’s impressive list of publications—a list that covers an amazingly broad range of topics and keeps getting longer at an amazing pace.1 The red thread that runs through all of Callinicos’s imposing intellectual output is indeed as glaring here as ever. Callinicos is a thinker who considers himself primarily a political fighter, and who is well known in both capacities. The author of this very dense book engages from start to finish with discussions bearing political consequences (when they are not readily political), revisits old debates and partakes in more recent ones relating to the broad scope of his book.

The introduction, entitled “Empire of Theory, Theories of Empire”, starts with another short statement to which the concluding one, quoted above, seems directly related: “Empire is back with a vengeance.” This points to both the reassertion in the real world of some of the crudest forms of imperialism and the resurgence of discussion of empire in the new “unipolar” era, marked by the end of the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. From the outset, Callinicos defines the central theoretical issue of his book as the relation between “two forms of competition, namely economic and geopolitical”, the intersection of which he sees as constituting capitalist imperialism. He tends to present this stance as an original one, peculiar to both David Harvey and himself, although one could regard it as being rather a continuation of a widely shared classical legacy. Indeed, Callinicos himself quotes Anthony Brewer, who wrote long ago in his survey of Marxist theories of “imperialism” that, “for classical Marxists, it meant, primarily, rivalry between major capitalist countries, rivalry expressed in conflict over territory, taking political and military as well as economic form”.2

On this central issue of inter-imperialist competition, Callinicos identifies three contemporary positions among those referring to Marxism. One holds that capitalism is now transnational, or supranational, and that geopolitical conflicts among capitalist powers have therefore become obsolete. The second considers that US supremacy holds the system together and prevents geopolitical conflicts, hence reaching a similar conclusion to the previous position albeit for an altogether different reason. The final position, shared by Callinicos, converges basically with Lenin’s classical analysis (although Callinicos does criticise the latter’s theoretical and factual shortcomings) in believing that the uneven development of leading capitalist states is “likely, in the context of the continuing ‘long downturn’, to give rise to geopolitical struggles”.3

It is useful to keep in mind that this last cautious assertion (“likely”) succeeds a more categorical one made by Alex Callinicos in 1991, at the dawn of the new historical era, when he predicted a return “to a world that is politically as well as economically multipolar”. He now acknowledges that this was a misjudgement, or “at [the] very least” an assertion “requiring considerable qualification”.4 The book under review is actually the outcome of close to two decades of dealing with debates related to this central issue. Confronted with an actual evolution of inter-imperialist relations that differed from his initial forecast, Callinicos reconsidered the question
radically—in the etymological sense of the word: going back to the roots of the debate, amending and refining his initial conjecture, without abandoning the basic Leninist framework.

The book consist of two parts: one devoted to a theoretical discussion of imperialism and the second to a more empirical assessment of its historical evolution up to the present day. The truth is that both parts combine theory and facts, the first being mainly devoted to clarifying the theory of imperialism and the second concerned with verifying the theoretical premises against the actual history of imperialism. Part one, “Theory”, examines the “classical legacy” from Marx to the various participants in the debates of the last century’s first decades. It then turns to contemporary debates on the nature and shape of the global state system, mostly among Marxists but taking into account their engagements with non-Marxist discussions, especially in the field of International Relations.

These welcome and necessary engagements—without which Marxist debates withdraw too often from reality into a cocoon of “theory”—are naturally much more frequent in part two, titled “History”. Callinicos, starting from a consideration of the essence of capitalism and the controversies about its origins that unfolded in the second half of the 20th century, discusses with remarkable erudition what the historical long-term perspective (Fernand Braudel’s longue durée) can tell us about his major concern, the “symbiotic relationship…between state-building and geopolitical expansion, on the one hand, and capitalist economic development, on the other”.5 This is followed by a periodisation of imperialism which distinguishes (unsurprisingly) between three main “ages”: the classical age that started in the last decades of the 19th century and culminated in the 1914-1945 epoch of inter-imperialist wars, against the background of a paroxysmal dialectic of socialism and barbarism; “superpower imperialism”, essentially what is commonly described as the Cold War from the end of the Second World War to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991; and a third “age” inaugurated by this epochal watershed to whose contours and perspectives Callinicos devotes the last section of his book.

Predictably, part two reads better than the first, and is considerably longer. A general problem with the book, indeed, especially acute in its first part, is that it is written in such a way that it risks putting off all but the narrow circle of people who are familiar with the debates that the author refers to, debates that may often seem quite esoteric to lay readers. One might wish that Callinicos had left aside—or relegated to endnotes—some of the far too frequent discussions of secondary details or side issues he indulges in, in favour of a more didactic presentation in which erudition does not come at the cost of readability. Nonetheless, if you are brave enough to overcome such obstacles to smooth reading, you will find in the book an extremely precious mine of information. Indeed, Callinicos’s book is definitely a must read-for anyone wishing to explore the issue of imperialism.

Full of insights of varying importance in the context of sustained debates and polemics, the book offers, as you would expect, a long list of assertions that may be questioned and discussed far beyond the scope of a normal book review or a short article. It will certainly elicit rejoinders in various forms and forums from the many writers the author criticises. This review will therefore concentrate on discussing from a different perspective what underlies most directly the book’s key thesis with respect to the shape of the present-day imperialist system. The fact that Callinicos’s initial prognosis when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 proved inaccurate logically leads one—as he himself did—to reconsider the premises of that prognosis.

Two major problems can be identified in these premises: the first pertains to the relation between economic and geopolitical rivalries; the second to the nature of the opposition between the two Cold War superpowers. On the first problem, it seems to this reviewer that Callinicos, despite his welcome effort at complicating the issue, still sticks too much to a narrow, literal conception of what is “economic”. In other words, he still takes the “economic” too much in the immediate sense and not, as it often is, as a “last instance” mediated by non-economic dimensions. Let me take an example to clarify: Callinicos very rightly explains that the chief oil-related interest of the US in invading Iraq was not a matter of “profits” in the narrow sense (ie, corporate profits, although this consideration is certainly present), but a strategic one whereby Washington can seize control of others’ access to oil.

Yet, the dichotomy between the “economic” and the “geopolitical” that informs this perception of imperialism can be too rigid unless one underlines the substantial identity of the two instances. As Lenin put it very well, politics is “concentrated economics”. In other words, what appears as “geopolitical” is itself “economic”—in the last instance. Thus, the drive of the US to world geopolitical, ie political-military, supremacy is not a goal in and by itself, but a mediation of the fundamentally economic profit-making drive of capitalism (a feature distinguishing it from all other modes of production). Callinicos puts his finger on this aspect when he hints at the way Washington uses “one of America’s main comparative advantages—its overwhelming military lead over all the other powers combined—as a way of maintaining [its] hegemony in an increasingly pluralistic global economy”.6

Conversely, the belief that the Soviet Union (subsumed under the category of “state capitalism” by Callinicos in conformity with the political tradition to which he belongs) is driven by similar motivations, is hardly sustainable. However one likes to characterise the defunct Soviet Union (and this reviewer is of the view that no existing characterisation is really satisfactory, leaving the issue in need of the refinement of a specific category), it is utterly unconvincing to believe that it belonged to the same category as pre-1914 Germany on which the label “state capitalism” was stuck by contemporary Marxists. The basic driving force of German imperialism was essentially similar to that of British imperialism, notwithstanding the structural differences between their two brands of capitalism: a matter of capitalist economic interest in the last instance, whatever the mediations were.

In Nazi Germany this driving force got combined with an irrational drive at world formal totalitarian domination, where extra-economic coercion would dictate an outcome that could very well revert ultimately to some form of slavery (tried out in the concentration camps) or tributary mode of production. The drive was irrational from a capitalist perspective (the very reason why capitalism could expand in its heartlands was that it transcended the primarily extra-economic coercion of previous modes), and irrational from the common sense point of view of the adequacy of means to ends. We must thus already introduce here a necessary distinction between rivalries that occur from within the same world-system, such as between pre-1914 Britain and Germany, and systemic rivalries, or rivalries between systemic and counter-systemic powers with regard to a hegemonic world-system, such as the rivalry between the Axis and the US-UK alliance in World War II.

The basic driving force of the Soviet Union was definitely not the same as pre-1914 Germany either. It was primarily the conservative interest of its ruling bureaucratic caste, resting on a combination of repressive control and consent built on gains accruing to the working class in the name of a “proletarian” ideology. Ignoring this latter dimension leads to the postulation of a total discordance between ideology and actual social configuration that is absurd from a historical materialist point of view, especially when it lasts for several decades. It is for this reason that the Soviet Union was always regarded by world capitalism as a counter-systemic force—one that was actually much more antithetical to the hegemonic world-system than Nazi Germany itself (where German big business thrived). Hence the well-known inclination of mainstream capitalist powers to attempt to seduce Berlin into an anti-communist alliance. This attempt was ruined by Hitler’s megalomaniac ambitions, attacking both the mainstream capitalist camp and the Soviet Union, prompting the two into an uneasy (and very competitive) alliance that could not and did not survive the Axis defeat.

This also means, of course, that the post-1945 configuration of world powers was not of the same nature as the pre-1914 one, with the single difference of multipolarity in one case and bipolarity in the other. Nor was the role that Britain played in the capitalist world-system before 1914 similar to that played by the US within the Western world-system after 1945, as Callinicos seems to believe.7 To be sure, there are some economic functions—monetary above all—that are comparable between the two roles, but the qualitative differences far outweigh the resemblances: Britain was no more than a “first among equals” in the post-1815 concert of Europe, playing a balancing role between its rivals, more apprehensive of each other than they were of Britain if only because of its insularity. The US was by far the most powerful state in the post-1945 Western system (in the political sense of the West, which includes Japan), with the other states coalescing around it for fear of the counter-systemic force represented and led by the Soviet Union (the fear of “Communism”).

Thus it was for two combined reasons that the US was willingly accepted as overlord of the Western imperialist system by its dominant capitalist classes. First, the huge post-1945 disparity in power between a US which emerged from the war much stronger than it entered and than its Western partners who were devastated and exhausted by the same war. Secondly, the decisive rise of the counter-systemic power of the Soviet Union, which extended the zone under its control (its “buffer zone”) to Central Europe thanks to the war. This threat was accentuated by Communist parties, socially based on the working class and/or the peasantry, coming out of the war with power-grabbing potential in several Western European countries, as well as in China and Indochina. It is this historically specific combination that turned Western Europe and Japan into “vassals” of the US, as Zbigniew Brzezinski very “realistically” called them. Indeed, the feudal paradigm of suzerain/vassals is the one that best fits the relations within the Western world-system between the US and its allies.

With this analytical framework, the evolution of post Cold War international relations is easier to understand. Under Reagan the US had experienced to the utmost degree the economic advantages and privileges that it could reap from exploiting its main comparative advantage, ie its overwhelming military superiority. Confronted with the collapse of the counter-systemic threat, the US manoeuvred immediately in order to renew the conditions for its vassals’ allegiance. The Gulf crisis and war of 1990-91 was a decisive moment in the reassertion of the vassals’ need for US military suzerainty;8 it was followed by the Balkan wars on European soil, culminating in the 1999 Nato Kosovo campaign. This was the period during which Washington—in order to maintain and expand both the Atlantic and the US-Japanese alliances—deliberately antagonised both Moscow and Beijing, although neither of the two countries was any longer counter-systemic. As I wrote at the time in an article that Callinicos mentions in his book:

These strategic choices keep up a level of tension with these two powers that justifies the US suzerainty over their neighbours, Germany, Europe and Japan, and blocks any move towards possible regional alliances—Euro-Russian or Sino-Japanese—which might be able to challenge American hegemony.9

We get here to the last theoretical problem, that of applying the definition of imperialism. The basic economic dimension that is common to the various Marxist definitions of “imperialism” is as a mode of capitalist exploitation of the rest of the world, beyond the purely political-military concept of “empire” that goes back to the dawn of civilisation. If we adhere to this definition, it is already hard to define Russia as a full-fledged imperialist power, although certainly not impossible when taking into consideration what could be called its “internal imperialism”. It is certainly much more difficult to define China as such. In reality, both countries are “in transition”, as the IMF aptly calls them using, albeit in reverse, a label long used by various Marxists for the Eastern bloc. They are indeed in transition towards market capitalism (a transition far more advanced in Russia than in China, to be sure) and simultaneously towards imperialism (an instance of “combined development”) in the sense of projecting their economic power out of their territorial borders (a process more advanced in the case of China).

This means that neither Russia nor China is yet engaged in an economic competition with Western powers that can be compared in intensity and scope to the economic competition raging among Western powers. Thus any “economistic” reading of world events would be misleading, as there is a clear disconnection between the intensity of economic competition and that of geopolitical competition. The US does its best to ostracise Russia and China geopolitically from its Western partners because it knows full well that the full integration of these two countries into the Western system would undermine the allegiance of its present vassals. For that very reason, it provoked them into what I called in 1999 a “new cold war”—in the original sense of the phrase referring to the “arms race” between East and West. At the same time, following the old recipe of “the hub and the spokes”, Washington strives to keep each of the two potential rivals more in need of the US than they need each other.10 In the last instance, to be sure, the US is protective of its global economic advantages whereas the rising imperialisms of Russia and China will increasingly confront these same economic advantages.

None of the EU members can contemplate challenging US geopolitical hegemony alone, without an alliance with either Russia or China, or both; neither can the EU as a whole contemplate doing so alone. This is not only because of the huge economic cost that this would entail with regard to military expenditure, as Callinicos correctly emphasises. It is also, and above all, because the EU is still far from achieving political-military centralisation that translates into unified military command, a fact that he tends to overlook. This is precisely why Washington plays “divide and rule” among its European partners, as Callinicos observes.

On the other hand, China definitely has the potential to become a peer competitor of the US, provided its economy keeps growing at a fast rate and in the absence of major domestic political turmoil (two big “ifs”, for sure). In this regard, the sheer size of the GDP is what is determinant, not the GDP per capita. The larger China’s GDP grows, the larger the portion of it Beijing can devote to its military expenditure. There is a realistic possibility of it matching that of the US in less than two decades, and it has a much larger capacity to mobilise human resources for military purposes than Washington does. Beijing knows that time plays in its favour: it is why it bets presently on what its leadership calls “peaceful rise”—that is rising peacefully up to the moment when it will be able to afford to be less peaceful and can match Washington’s aggressiveness, if and when needed.

These are only some reflections provoked by Alex Callinicos’s hugely stimulating work, which is packed with food for thought. At the end of the book the author expresses modestly the hope that he has managed to show “the kind of analytical purchase Marxist social theory still has in the 21st century”. Indeed. Only the “still” is superfluous, since his book brilliantly shows that the analytical purchase of Marxist social theory is actually stronger than ever, as so many observers have emphasised in recent years.


1: Alex Callinicos has already published a new book this year: Callinicos 2010.

2: Callinicos, 2009, p26.

3: Callinicos, 2009, p17.

4: Callinicos, 2009, p187.

5: Callinicos 2009, p136.

6: Callinicos, 2009, p224.

7: “It seems to me fairly clear that Britain between 1815 and 1914, and the US after 1945, performed a similar role in the international system both in organising the world economy and in regulating conflicts between the Great Powers, even though the resources they had at their disposal and the kinds of states they related to were significantly different.” Callinicos, 2009, p142.

8: Suzerainty refers to the domination of one state by another acting as an overlord.

9: Achcar, 1998, p126.

10: See Achcar, 1998.


Achcar, Gilbert, 1998, “The Strategic Triad: The United States, Russia and China”, New Left Review, I/228, (March/April 1998).

Callinicos, Alex, 2010, Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World (Polity).