Imperialism and Global Political Economy

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Alex Callinicos, Polity; £16.99

The notion of "imperialism" is firmly back on the global agenda. For many thousands of people who have become politically active over the past decade through involvement in the great movements against war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, it helps inform the way in which they now make sense of the world.

Yet as Alex Callinicos argues in this important and impressive study, it is not enough to have a generalised understanding of "empire" and "imperialism". Rather, as socialists we need to understand what is specific about the current variant of imperialism, and what distinguishes it from pre-capitalist versions, as well as from the imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is not a matter of abstract philosophical clarification. Without such an understanding of the dynamics and contradictions of the current world system, our ability to contribute to its overthrow is considerably impaired.

For Callinicos, developing such an understanding means starting from the recognition that modern imperialism is "capitalist imperialism". As he himself notes, this is hardly news. An understanding that the geopolitical struggles of the early 20th century were bound up with developments in the structure of capitalism was central to the Marxist analysis of imperialism developed by Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and others before and during the First World War.

While elements of this classical legacy are still relevant today, these analyses cannot be applied dogmatically to current situations. Instead, like David Harvey, Callinicos argues that capitalist imperialism is constituted by the intersection of two forms of competition, namely economic and geopolitical. As he shows, this is a powerful explanatory formula.

Its strengths are, firstly, that it is historically open, in allowing for the exploration of different types of imperialism. Secondly, it is non-reductionist, since it involves a concrete analysis of the relative influence of each of these dimensions in each specific situation. Thirdly, and very importantly, it places competition at the heart of our understanding of imperialism.

Here the debt to the classical legacy is most obvious. In the same way that Lenin, almost a century ago, refuted Karl Kautsky's arguments that "ultra-imperialism" made wars less likely, Callinicos here demolishes the arguments of those such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who argue that competition between states is now obsolete, and that national antagonisms have been dissolved in a transnational network of capitalism (a difficult argument to sustain in the wake of the Iraq war).

In addition, in contrast to "third worldist" approaches which conceptualise imperialism in terms of a North-South divide, for Callinicos, as for Lenin and Bukharin, the central dynamic of imperialism was, and continues to be, competition between advanced capitalist states.

From this starting point Callinicos goes on to explore the relationship between Marx's analysis of capitalist crisis and the development of imperialism. In another chapter he analyses the relationship between state and capital (including critiques of current International Relations theories and "Political Marxism" approaches).

Callinicos states that he has spent two decades working on a theory of imperialism. As the product of that effort, this book, which builds not only on the insights of Lenin, Bukharin, Rosa Luxemburg and others but also on the work of comrades from the International Socialist tradition, is both a valuable contribution to our understanding of modern imperialism and a powerful weapon in the struggle to end it.