N.I. Bukharin: Imperialism and World Economy


Chapter 9: Imperialism as an Historic Category


In the preceding chapters we undertook to prove that imperialist policies arise only on a certain level of historic development. A number of contradictions of capitalism are here tied up into one knot, which is cut by the sword of war, only to be tied again more tightly the next moment. The policy of the ruling classes, and their ideology inevitably arising from this stage of development, must therefore be characterised as a specific Phenomenon.1)

In the literature that floods the market at present, there prevail two, soi-distant, theories of imperialism. One sees in the modern policy of conquest a struggle of races. The "Slavs" or the "Teutonic" races are supposed to strive for domination, and all virtues and vices are distributed among those "races" according to the nationality of the author. Old and vulgar as this "theory" is, it persists with a tenacity of a prejudice, for it finds a very favourable soil in the growth of "national self-consciousness" among the ruling classes who are directly interested in utilising the remnants of old psychological stratifications for the interest of the state organisation of finance capital.

A simple reference to facts shatters this theory, leaving not a single stone of the entire edifice. The Anglo-Saxons, of the same origin as the Germans, are their cruelest enemies; the Bulgarians and the Serbs, pure Slavs, speaking almost the same language, find themselves on different sides of the trenches. The Poles are recruiting among themselves ardent partisans of both Austrian and Russian orientation. The same is happening with the Ukrainians, one section of whom is in sympathy with the Russians, while another is in sympathy with the Austrians. On the other hand, every one of the belligerent coalitions combines the most heterogeneous races, nationalities, tribes. Looked at from a racial point of view, what is there common to the English, Italians, Russians, Spanish and the black savages of the French colonies, whom the "glorious republic" is driving to slaughter, just as the ancient Romans drove their colonial slaves? What is there common to the Germans and the Czechs, the Ukrainians and the Hungarians, the Bulgarians and the Turks who proceed together against the coalition of the Entente? It is perfectly obvious that not races but state organisations of definite groups of the bourgeoisie are conducting the struggle. It is also perfectly obvious that one or the other grouping of the great powers is determined, not by a community of certain racial tasks, but by a community of capitalist aims at a given moment. This is why the Serbs and Bulgarians, who only recently fought together against Turkey, have now split into hostile camps. This is why England, formerly an enemy of Russia, is now exercising hegemony over it. This is why Japan keeps step with the Russian bourgeoisie, although only ten years ago Japanese capital fought with arms in hand against Russian capital.2)

From a purely scientific, not falsified, point of view, the inadequacy of this theory is striking. Notwithstanding its obvious falsity, however, it is assiduously cultivated both in the press and in the universities, for the sole reason that it promises no mean advantages for Master Capital.3) In justice, however, we must note that, to the extent that the various "races" are being consolidated and united in the iron fist of the military state, there appears a less vulgar but no less untenable attempt to advance a territorial-psychological theory. The place of the "race" is here taken by its substitute, the "middle European," "American," or some other "humanity."4) This theory is also far from the truth, because it ignores the principal characteristic of modern society - its class structure, and because the class interests of the upper social strata are substituted for the so-called "general" interests of the "whole."

The second very widespread "theory" of imperialism defines it as the policy of conquest in general. From this point of view one can speak with equal right of Alexander the Macedonian's and the Spanish conquerors' imperialism, of the imperialism of Carthage and Ivan III, of ancient Rome and modern America, of Napoleon and Hindenburg.

Simple as this theory may be, it is absolutely untrue. It is untrue because it "explains" everything, i.e., it explains absolutely nothing.

Every policy of the ruling classes ("pure" policy, military policy, economic policy) has a perfectly definite functional significance. Growing out of the soil of a given system of production, it serves to reproduce given relations of production either simply or on an enlarged scale. The policy of the feudal rulers strengthens and widens feudal production relations. The policy of trade capital increases the sphere of domination of trade capitalism. The policy of finance capitalism reproduces the production basis of finance capital on a wider scale.

It is perfectly clear that the same thing can also be said about the war. War serves to reproduce definite relations of production. War of conquest serves to reproduce those rela tions on a wider scale. Simply to define war, however, as conquest is entirely insufficient, for the simple reason that in doing so we fail to indicate the main thing, namely, what production relations are strengthened or extended by the war, what basis is widened by a given "policy of conquest."5)

Bourgeois science does not see and does not wish to see this. It does not understand that a basis for the classification of various "policies" must exist in the social economy out of which the "policies" arise. Moreover, it is inclined to overlook the vast differences existing between various periods of economic development, and just at the present time, when all the peculiarities of the historical economic process of our days are so striking to the eye, the Austrian and Anglo-American economic school, the least historical of all, has built its nest in bourgeois economics.6) Publicists and scholars attempt to paint modern imperialism as something akin to the policies of the heroes of antiquity with their "imperium."

This is the "method" of bourgeois historians and economists. They gloss over the fundamental difference between the slaveholding system of "antiquity," with its embryo of trade capital and artisanship, and "modern capitalism." The aim in this case is quite clear. The futility of the ideas of labour democracy must be "proven" by placing it on a level with the Lumpenproletariat the workers and the artisans of antiquity.

From a purely scientific point of view all such theories are highly erroneous. If a certain phase of development is to be theoretically understood, it must be understood with all its peculiarities, its distinguishing trends, its specific characteristics, which it shares with none. He who, like "Colonel Torrence," sees in the savage's club the beginning of capital, he who, like the "Austrian" school of economics, defines capital as a means of production (which in essence is the same thing), will never be able to find his way among the tendencies of capitalist development and include them in one theoretical structure. The historian or economist who places under one denominator the structure of modern capitalism, i.e., modern production relations, and the numerous types of production relations that formerly led to wars of conquest, will understand nothing in the development of modern world economy. One must single out the specific elements which characterise our time, and analyse them. This was Marx's method, and this is how a Marxist must approach the analysis of imperialism.7)

We now understand that it is impossible to confine oneself to the analysis of the forms, in which a policy manifests itself; for instance, one cannot be satisfied with defining a policy as that of "conquest," "expansion," "violence," etc. One must analyse the basis on which it rises and which it serves to widen. We have defined imperialism as the policy of finance capital. Therewith we uncovered the functional significance of that policy. It upholds the structure of finance capital; it subjugates the world to the domination of finance capital; in place of the old pre-capitalist, or the old capitalist, production relations, it put the production relations of finance capital. Just as finance capitalism (which must not be confused with money capital, for finance capital is characterised by being simultaneously banking and industrial capital) is an historically limited epoch, confined only to the last few decades, so imperialism, as the policy of finance capital, is a specific historic category.

Imperialism is a policy of conquest. But not every policy of conquest is imperialism. Finance capital cannot pursue any other policy. This is why, when we speak of imperialism as the policy of finance capital, its conquest character is selfunderstood; at the same time, however, we point out what production relations are being reproduced by this policy of conquest. Moreover, this definition also includes a whole series of other historic trends and characteristics. Indeed, when we speak of finance capital, we imply highly developed economic organisms and, consequently, a certain scope and intensity of world relations; in a word, we imply the existence of a developed world economy; by the same token we imply a certain state of production relations, of organisational forms of the economic life, a certain interrelation of classes, and also a certain future of economic relations, etc., etc. Even the form and the means of struggle, the organisation of state power, the military technique, etc., are taken to be a more or less definite entity, whereas the formula "policy of conquest" is good for pirates, for caravan trade, and also for imperialism. In other words, the formula "policy of conquest," defines nothing, whereas the formula, "policy of conquest of finance capital," characterises imperialism as a definite historical entity.

From the fact that the epoch of finance capitalism is an historically limited phenomenon, it does not follow, of course, that it has stepped into the light of day like Deus ex machina. In reality it is an historic continuation of the epoch of industrial capitalism, just as the latter was a continuation of the phase of commercial capitalism. This is why the fundamental contradictions of capitalism which, in the course of its development, are continually being reproduced on a wider scale, find their sharpest expression in our own epoch. The same is true of the anarchic structure of capitalism, which finds its expression in competition. The anarchic character of capitalist society is expressed in the fact that social economy is not an organised collective body guided by a single will, but a system of economies interconnected through exchange, each of which produces at its own risk, never being in a position to adapt itself more or less to the volume of social demand and to the production carried on in other individual economies. This calls forth a struggle of the economies against each other, a war of capitalist competition. The forms of this competition can be widely different. The imperialist policy in particular is one of the forms of the competitive struggle. In the following chapter we intend to analyse it as a case of capitalist competition, namely, competition in the epoch of finance capital.


1) We speak of imperialism mainly as of a policy of finance capital. However, one may also speak of imperialism as an ideology. In a similar way liberalism is on the one hand a policy of industrial capitalism (free trade, etc.), on the other hand it denotes a whole ideology (personal liberty, etc.).

2) The "racial theory" has been excellently ridiculed by Kautsky. See his: Rasse and Judentum, published during the war. [Published in English under the title Are the Jews a Race, 1926. Ed.]

3) "Scientific" literature of the war period abounds with monstrous examples of barbarous violations of the most elementary truths. All possible methods are being picked up to show the cultural bankruptcy and the inborn meanness of the enemy's "race" (minderwertige Nationen). A French magazine has published a so-called "investigation" earnestly proving to its readers that the German urine is one-third more poisonous than that of the Entente nations in general, that of the French in particular!

4) See F. Neumann: Mitteleuropa.

5) Clausewitz's declaration that war is a continuation of politics by other means, is well known. Politics itself, however, is an active "continuation" in space of a given mode of production.

6) It is curious to note that even such scientists as the Russian historian, R. Wipper, have an unusual liking for "modernising" events beyond all bounds, for obliterating all historical marks. This is no surprise, for in very recent times Wipper has revealed himself as an unbridled chauvinist calumniator, finding hospitality at Mr. Riabushinsky s [Riabushinsky was a prominent Russian manufacturer. Ed.]

7) The methodology of Marxian economics was brilliantly explained by Marx in his Einleitung zu einer Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, which was published by Kautsky as an appendix to the latest edition of Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie Stuttgart 1897. [In English translation: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Chicago, 1913. Ed.]