Imperialism is a broad, transhistorical concept that has been used and understood in a number of ways since the time of the Roman Empire. Generally, it implies the political, economic and/or military domination of one state by another. Since the late 19th century, the term has taken on a distinct Marxist connotation, where it is recognised as an intrinsic part of capitalist development. It is precisely this notion of imperialism that Anthony Brewer attempts to examine in his book Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey (1990). He argues that Marxist theories of imperialism have either been completely accepted or rejected, without being subject to any form of systematic investigation. Therefore, he adopts a “sympathetic, but critical position” in his evaluation of said theories (1990: ix).
The book opens with a brief history of capitalism and a succinct review of Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a mode of production. Here, Brewer examines and explains certain key concepts such as expanded reproduction, surplus value, and the concentration and centralisation of capital, among others. The writers surveyed in the book draw on these ideas in their respective analyses on the nature of imperialism and its implications. Since Marx never explicitly wrote about imperialism, this section is particularly useful and helpful in establishing connections between contributions of these theorists and the works of Marx. Brewer chooses not to provide a singular definition of imperialism and adheres to the usage of the author under discussion.
The first theorist under consideration is Rosa Luxemberg who examined how expansion of the global capitalist system takes place through a sustained incorporation of pre-capitalist modes of production (both within and between nations). While Brewer recognises the importance of this contribution, he is simultaneously critical of her proposition that the driver of this expansion is a search for new markets, which arises from a lack of demand for commodities within capitalist economies. In a similar vein, he goes on to critique John A. Hobson’s view of underconsumption being a driver of imperialism. Though Hobson was not a Marxist, his inclusion in this edition of the book is justified on the grounds that his work on imperialism strongly influenced the writings of later Marxists such as Lenin, Paul Baran, and Paul Sweezy.
Moving in a somewhat chronological order, the next section focuses on Rudolf Hilferding, Nikolai Bukharin, and Lenin who were responsible for formulating the “classical Marxist theories of imperialism” (ibid: 88). Writing in the early 20th century, their analyses centered around the economic, political, and military competition between major capitalist powers of the time and their tendency towards inter-imperial war. While Hilferding identified the rise of monopoly and finance capital within nation-states, it was Bukharin who integrated these elements and proposed the idea of imperialism as a policy of finance capital. Interestingly, Brewer finds the theoretical contribution of Lenin’s work to be marginal, and sees it as a synthesis of the works of Hilferding, Bukharin, and Hobson.
The post-war period saw Marxist theory shift away from debates around the internal dynamics of capitalist powers, towards understanding the process of capitalist development in the less-developed countries. Baran was among the first to discuss this phenomenon and he drew attention to the fact that the internal economic structure of underdeveloped countries meant that they would not mechanistically follow the path of development taken by advanced economies. Building on this idea, the Dependency School studied how economic processes linking the metropolis and satellite allow for surplus extraction, which simultaneously generates development in the center and underdevelopment in the periphery. The contributions of three key theorists (Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Samir Amin) are examined, and the shortcomings of their propositions are highlighted (particularly the static nature of their analysis and the emphasis on exploitation via exchange relations, rather than production relations).
Understanding imperialism as exploitation and inequality, Arghiri Emmanuel’s theory of unequal exchange analyses how wage differentials between developed and underdeveloped countries can result in asymmetrical trade relations. Breaking with the stagist view, the penultimate chapter specifically deals with a number of debates surrounding the emergence of capitalism in less-developed countries. While extremely interesting, it appears to be tangential to the key purpose of the book. In conclusion, Brewer discusses a few key contemporary developments in capitalism and speculates about the future of imperialism.
For students of imperialism and Marxism, the importance and usefulness of this book cannot be overstated. Brewer carries out the invaluable task of critically surveying and collating a vast body of literature on imperialism within the Marxist tradition. He is able to distill out the key ideas that are at the heart of each writer’s body of work and interrogate them in a balanced, yet critical way. However, in certain sections (such as that of Emmanuel) the discussion is highly economic, technical and somewhat insular, with limited to no historical and political contextualisation.
The introductory chapter on Marx is extremely lucid and captures the breadth of his thinking, without losing out on its complexity. Throughout the book, Brewer draws connections between different theories, demonstrating the continuities and discontinuities between them, along with relating them to Marx. Thus, the reader is presented with a coherent account of the evolution in Marxist conceptualisations of imperialism over time. A noteworthy inclusion is Rosa Luxemburg, who occupies an ambivalent position within the Marxian canon due to her sharp criticism of both reformist social democracy and Leninism (Kołakowski, 1978: 61). Though he sharply critiques some of her theoretical propositions, Brewer recognises the value of her analysis of the continued expansion of capital into pre-capitalist sectors – a position shared currently by Harvey in his idea of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Michael-Mastas, 2008: 49). The contemporary manifestation of this can be seen in the logic of ever expanding marketisation and privatisation (Callinicos, 2009: 14).
Similarly, Brewer rightly emphasizes the contribution of Hilferding, who he labels the “founder of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism” (1990: 108). When published, Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1910) was widely celebrated as a supplement to Marx’s Capital. Due to its limited relevance in the post-war period of de-financialisation, it lost much of its previous popularity (King, 2010: 52,59). However, the utility of Hilferding’s analytical and methodological approach is evident in its increasing application in studying the contemporary nature of financialised, global capitalism (Lapavitsas, 2013: 799).
One of the most striking features of the book is its treatment of Lenin, who is arguably one of the most prominent contributors to Marxist understandings of imperialism. Like many others, Brewer (1990: 21) argues that “Lenin’s pamphlet has been treated with a reverence it does not deserve” due to its minimal theoretical contribution and lack of originality (Marshall, 2014: 317). He is particularly critical of what he interprets as Lenin’s underconsumptionist view. This reading stems from the ambiguity surrounding Lenin’s description of capital export taking place as result of capitalism being “over-ripe” in the monopoly stage. It is clear from Lenin’s work (1996: 61) that he emphasises the role of overaccumulation of capital (rather than commodities) within the system, and locates the driver of imperialism in the sphere of production rather than consumption. This position is consistent with Lenin’s previous rejections of underconsumption creating a crisis of capital (Marshall, 2014: 320). What is puzzling is that even though Brewer (1990: 119) explicitly recognises this argument, he continues to associate Lenin’s theory with underconsumption, rather than Marx’s notion of the falling rate of profit.
Another major limitation of the book is that it has not been updated in nearly three decades. This significantly impacts the concluding chapter, where Brewer anticipates the end of US hegemony. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, there has been a marked ascendancy in US imperialism and a renaissance in Marxist theorising of imperialism. This started with Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) and eventually encompassed a wide range of authors such as David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Leo Panitch, and Sam Gindin, among others. The third phase of thinkers re-interpret classical imperialism theory in the light of the current era of neoliberal globalisation (Noonan, 2017: 7-8). Additionally, the emergence of China has generated numerous debates about the apparent decline of US hegemony (particularly post the 2008 financial crisis). However, economic factors such the use of the US dollar as the international reserve currency, the persistence of America’s political and military power, combined with China’s own economic and political structure, limit the possibility of China posing a real threat to US imperialism (Callinicos, 2009: 188-227). Brewer’s book is unable to capture these major developments in 21st century imperialism – a gap that has been filled by Noonan (2017).
In spite of these shortcomings, Marxist Theories of Imperialism continues to remain one of the best introductions to the field. It presents complex arguments in a way that is engaging and accessible, even though it occasionally obscures more than it reveals. Given the return to imperialism that has taken place in the current century, the book is in urgent need of an update. Nevertheless, it remains a comprehensive and compelling work that helps shed light on the current dynamics of global capitalist development.
Brewer, A. (1990). Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Callinicos, A. (2009). Imperialism and Global Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity.
Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press.
King, J. (2010). Hilferding’s Finance Capital in the Development of Marxist Thought. History of Economics Review, 52(1), pp.52-62.
Kołakowski, L. (1978). Main Currents of Marxism – Volume II: The Golden Age. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.61-97.
Lapavitsas, C. (2013). The financialization of capitalism: ‘Profiting without producing’. City, 17(6), pp.792-805.
Lenin, V. (1996) . Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. 1st ed. London: Junius Publications Ltd.
Marshall, A. (2014). Lenin’s Imperialism Nearly 100 Years on: An Outdated Paradigm?. Critique, 42(3), pp.317-333.
Michael-Matsas, S. (2008). The New-Old Imperialism. Critique, 36(1), pp.45-61.
Noonan, M. (2017). Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A History. I.B. Tauris.