N.I. Bukharin: Imperialism and World Economy


Chapter 12: "Necessity" of Imperialism, and "Ultra-imperialism"


Tout comprendre-c'est tout pardonner1) says a French adage. Not every adage, however, expresses a correct thought. In this instance we deal with an obviously incorrect idea. To understand a phenomenon means to establish a causal relation between it and another phenomenon or series of phenomena. From this it does not at all follow that a phenomenon correctly understood must be forgiven under all circumstances. If this were so, then all phenomena labelled as "evil" in the language of "ethical personalities" are forever closed to human reason: since evil cannot be forgiven, obviously it cannot be understood. In reality matters are not as bad as that. On the contrary, only then can we appraise a phenomenon, i.e., characterise it as positive or negative, when we understand it. Consequently, even when we are by no means inclined to "forgive," we must first of all "understand." This elementary truth is applicable also to historic events. To understand an historic event means to represent it as the consequence of a definite historic cause or historic causes; in other words, to represent it not as an "accidental" entity caused by nothing, but as an entity inevitably flowing from the total of given conditions. The element of causality is the element of necessity ("causal necessity"). Marxism teaches us that the historic process, and consequently every link in the chain of historic events, is a "necessary" entity. To deduce political fatalism from this doctrine is absurd, for the simple reason that historic events are taking place not outside of but through the will of people, through the class struggle if we deal with a class society. The will of the classes is in every instance determined by given circumstances; in this respect it is not at all "free." However, that will becomes in turn a conditioning factor of the historic process. If we eliminate the actions of people, the struggle of classes, etc., we eliminate the entire historic process. Fatalist "Marxism" has always been a bourgeois-made caricature of the Marxist doctrine, contrived by the theoreticians of the ruling class in order more easily to overcome Marxism. We have all heard the widely circulated sophism that Marxists predicting the inevitable coming of the post-capitalist order are like a party struggling for the coming of a lunar eclipse. On the other hand there has been a strong tendency among bourgeois opportunists, when they sought for a "strictly scientific" formulation of their desires, to wrap themselves in the cloak of that "Marxism," which, to them, elevates everything existing at a given moment to the rank of the absolute, and sees in the existing a limit that cannot be overstepped. Hegel's formula, "Everything that is is reasonable," was more than once utilised by such opportunists for their own purpose. Whereas for Marx the "reasonableness of everything existing" was only the expression of a causal relation between the present and the past, a relation the understanding of which is the starting point for the overcoming of the "existing," this "reasonableness" served for the opportunists to justify and perpetuate it.2) Die Geschichte hat immer Recht, (history is always right), this is how a "Marxist," Heinrich Cunow, justifies his "acceptance" of imperialism.3) Every idea of overcoming it, he says, is only an "illusion"; the desire to systematise such ideas is a "worship of illusions" (Illusionenkultus). Of course, nothing is more shallow than such an interpretation of Marxism. An excellent reply to Cunow is contained in Marx's answer to the bourgeois economist, Burke.

"The laws of commerce" (the latter said) "are the laws of nature and therefore the laws of God," to which Marx replied: "In view of the abominable lack of principle that we see on all hands to-day, and in view of the devout faith in 'the laws of commerce,' it is our boundless duty again and again to stigmatise the Burkes whose only difference from their successors was that they had talent!"4)

But if things existing historically are subject to various estimations, what is it then that determines "practice"? Where are the limits of the achievable? To answer these questions more fully let us suppose two extreme cases. Let us first assume that we are dealing with a feebly developed proletariat in a country that has only just started on the road of capitalist development. The social classes in such a country still represent an unorganised mass. The proletariat itself has not yet become what Marx terms a "class for itself." The economic development is so weak that there are no objective conditions for the organisation of the economic life on a social scale. In such a case, we can say outright that there is an absence of prerequisites necessary for the overcoming of capitalist contradictions. While recognising in principle the conditional existence of capitalism, the Marxists at the same time point out that once it is impossible to divert social development from the capitalist tracks, what remains to be done is to reckon with the future of capitalist development and to organise the forces for the active overcoming of capitalism in the future, utilising at present the comparative progressiveness of the latter, fighting against the remnants of feudalism that hamper social progress, etc. There are, consequently, two decisive moments determining the foundations of "practical activity": First an "analysis of objective conditions," i.e., of a given state of economic development; second, an analysis of the specific social weight of the progressive social force itself, which of course is connected with the first moment. It is under conditions just pictured that Marxists speak of the necessity of capitalism, meaning the relative impossibility of overcoming it.

Let us now assume, secondly, that we deal with a highly developed capitalist organism, which makes the introduction of a planned course of social production possible; let us also assume the interrelation of social forces to be such that a considerable portion of the population belongs to the most progressive class. Under such conditions it is perfectly absurd to place the emphasis on capitalism as the "necessary" stage of development. (The latter to be understood not in the sense that capitalism as well as its present stage are products of historic development, but in the sense that it cannot be overcome.5)

If we now approach the question of the necessity of imperialism (the impossibility of overcoming it), we realise at once that there is no ground whatever to treat its necessity in this sense. On the contrary, imperialism is the policy of finance capitalism, i.e., a highly developed capitalism implying a considerable ripeness of the organisation of production; in other words, imperialist policies by their very existence bespeak the ripeness of the objective conditions for a new socioeconomic form; consequently, all talk about the "necessity" of imperialism as a limit to action is liberalism, is in itself semi-imperialism. The further existence of capitalism and imperialism becomes nothing more nor less than a question of the interrelation between mutually struggling class forces.

There exists, however, the danger of another opportunist deviation, which is outwardly opposed to fatalism-a theory now being most assiduously developed in literature by Karl Kautsky.6) Starting from the correct notion that the further existence of imperialism depends upon the interrelation of social forces, Kautsky proceeds along the following line.

Imperialism, he says, is a definite method of capitalist politics; the latter can exist even without forcible methods, in the same way as capitalism can exist with an eight-hour work day instead of a ten- or twelve-hour day. As far as the work day is concerned, the proletariat meets the bourgeois tendency towards increasing the labour day with its proletarian tendency to shorten the number of labour hours, doing so within the framework of capitalism. In the very same manner, says Kautsky, it is necessary to meet the bourgeois violent tendencies of imperialism with the peaceful tendencies of the proletariat. Thus, Kautsky asserts, the question can be solved within the framework of capitalism. Radical as this theory may seem at the first glance, it is in fact a thoroughly reformist one. Later we shall deal at length with the analysis of the possibility of "peaceful capitalism" á la Kautsky ("ultra-imperialism"). At present we wish to advance only a formal argument. We assert, namely, that from the fact that imperialism is a problem of the interrelation of forces, it does not at all follow that it can disappear within the framework of capitalism, just as the fifteen-hour work day or unregulated wages, etc... disappeared. If the problem were to be solved so simply, it would be possible to "map out" also the following perspective: it is known that capitalism implies the acquisition of surplus value by the capitalists; all the new value n is divided into two parts, n=v+s; this distribution, looked upon from its quantitative side, depends upon the interrelation of social forces (the antagonism of interests was early formulated by Ricardo). With the growth of resistance on the part of the working class it is perfectly thinkable that v will increase at the expense of s, and that n will be distributed in a proportion more favourable for the workers. Since, however, the gradual increase of the proletariat's share is determined by the interrelation of forces, and since there is no limit set for this increase, the working class, having reduced the share of the capitalist to the size of mere salaries, peacefully "drains" capitalism in turning the capitalists into mere employees or--at worst--into pensioners of the collective social body. This idyllic picture is obviously a reformist Utopia. No less of a Utopia is Kautsky's "ultra-imperialism."

Kautsky and his followers assert that the very process of capitalist development is favourable to the growth of elements that can serve as a support for ultra-imperialism. The growth of international interdependence of capital, they say, creates a tendency towards eliminating competition among the various "national" capitalist groups. This "peaceful" tendency, they say, is strengthened by pressure from below, and in this way rapacious imperialism is replaced by gentle ultra-imperialism.

Let us analyse the question on its merits. Speaking economically, the question must be formulated as follows: how is an agreement (or a merger) of the state capitalist trusts possible? For imperialism, as we all know, is nothing but the expression of competition between state capitalist trusts. Once this competition disappears, the ground for the policy of imperialism disappears also, and capital divided into many "national" groups is transformed into a single world organisation, a universal world trust opposed by the world proletariat.

Speaking in an abstract, theoretical way, such a trust is perfectly thinkable, for, generally speaking, there is no economic limit to the process of cartelisation. In our opinion, Hilferding is perfectly right when, in his Finanzkapital, he says:

The question arises as to where the limits of cartelisation can actually be drawn. The question must be answered in the sense that there is no absolute limit to cartelisation. On the contrary, the tendency towards a continuous widening of the scope of cartelisation may be observed. Independent industries are becoming more and more dependent upon the cartelised ones, and finally join them. As a result of this process, a universal cartel ought to emerge. Here all capital production would be consciously regulated from one centre, which determines the size of production in all its spheres....This would be a consciously regulated society in an antagonistic form. This antagonism, however, is the antagonism of distribution....The tendency towards creating such a universal cartel, and the tendency towards establishing a central bank coincide, and out of their unification grows the great concentrating power of finance capital.7)

This abstract economic possibility, however, by no means signifies its actual probability. The same Hilferding is perfectly right when he says in another place:

Economically, a universal cartel to guide all production and thus to eliminate crises, would be possible; such a cartel would be thinkable economically, although socially and politically such a state appears unrealisable, for the antagonism of interests, strained to the last possible limits, would necessarily bring about its collapse.8)

In reality, however, the socio-political causes would not even admit the formation of such an all-embracing trust. In the following we shall attempt to prove this thesis.

Comparative equality of positions in the world market is the first condition for the formation of a more or less stable compact. Where there is no such equality, the group occupying a more favourable position in the world market has no reason for joining a compact: on the contrary, it sees an advantage in continuing the struggle, for it has grown to hope that the competitor will be defeated. This is a general rule for the formation of compacts. It is just as applicable to the state capitalist trusts, with which we are dealing here, as it is in other cases. Two series of conditions, however, have to be taken into consideration here.

First of all, purely economic equality. This includes equality in the cost of production. Equality in the cost of production, however, reduces itself in the final analysis to equality in labour values and therefore to a relatively equal level of development of productive forces. Thus equality of economic structure is a condition for the formation of agreements. Where the difference in economic structure is considerable, where there is, as a consequence, inequality in the cost of production, there the state capitalist trust that possesses a higher technique finds it unprofitable to enter into an agreement. This is why the highly developed industry of Germany - to take as an example the practice of agreements as we find it in the various production branches - prefers to appear isolated in the world market as far as its main lines are concerned. Of course, when we deal with a state capitalist trust, we take into account a certain mean figure relative to all the production branches; we then proceed, not from the interests of the capitalist groups owning one or the other production branch, but from the interests of "organised industry," where after all the dominant note is being struck by the large-scale capitalists of the heavy industry, whose relative economic importance keeps on growing. Transportation cost is added to production cost proper.

Aside from this "purely economic" equality, a necessary condition for the formation of stable agreements is equality of economic policies. We have seen above that capital's connection with the state is transformed into an additional economic force. The stronger state secures for its industries the most advantageous trade treaties, and establishes high tariffs that are disadvantageous for the competitors. It helps its finance capital to monopolise the sales markets, the markets for raw materials, and particularly the spheres of capital investment. It is therefore easily understood why, when conditions of the struggle are being taken stock of in the world market, the state capitalist trusts reckon not only with the purely economic conditions of the struggle but also with the economic policies of the respective states. This is why even where there are relatively equal economic structures, but the military powers of the state capitalist trusts differ considerably, it is better for the stronger to continue the struggle rather than to enter into a compact or to merge with the others. If we view the situation of the struggling "nations" from this point of vantage, we realise that there is no reason to expect, at least in the more or less near future, an agreement or a merging of the state capitalist trusts and their transformation into a single world trust. It is sufficient to compare the economic structure of France and Germany, of England and America, of the developed countries in general, with such countries as Russia (the latter, though not belonging to the category of state capitalist trusts, nevertheless add to the establishment of certain relations in the world market) to realise how far we are from a world capitalist organisation.9) The same may be said also as regards military power. If the present war has shown (at least so far) a comparative equality of the opposing groups, one must not forget that we deal here with combinations of forces, each of which is by no means a stable entity.

The question of equality must be considered not only statically, but mainly dynamically. The "national" groups of the bourgeoisie build their plans not only on what "is" but also on what "will probably be." They take into strict account every possibility of development which may allow a certain group to become superior to all the others in due time, although at the present moment it may be economically and politically equal to its competitor. This circumstance makes the lack of equilibrium still more actue.10) The great stimulus to the formation of an international state capitalist trust is given by the internationalisation of capitalist interests as described in the first section of our work (participation in and financing of international enterprises, international cartels, trusts, etc.). Significant as this process may be in itself, it is, however, counteracted by a still stranger tendency of capital towards nationalisation, and towards remaining secluded within state boundaries. The benefits accruing to a "national" group of the bourgeoisie from a continuation of the struggle are much greater than the losses sustained in consequence of that struggle. By no means must we overestimate the significance of the already existing international industrial agreements. As we have noted above, many of them are very unstable, representing as they do businessmen's organisations of a relatively low type with a comparatively small centralisation, and often embracing highly specialised production branches (the bottle syndicate). Only companies formed in such spheres of production as are based on a natural monopoly (oil) possess comparative stability. Of course, the tendency towards internationalisation would none the less triumph "in the last analysis," but it would do so after a considerable period of very stubborn struggles between the state capitalist trusts.

But are not the costs of the struggle, i.e., military expenditures, perchance so large that it does not pay for the bourgeoisie to continue in this way? Is not such a plan as the proposed militarisation of England an expression of bourgeois "stupidity" which is blind to its own interests? Alas, it is riot so. We must attribute this quality rather to the naïve pacifists than to the bourgeoisie. The latter keeps its balance sheet in perfect shape. The truth of the matter is that those who make such arguments ordinarily lose sight of all the complex functions of military power. Such power, as we have seen above, functions not only in times of war but also in times of peace, to back up its finance capital in "peaceful competition." The pacifists forget that the war burdens, due to the incidence of taxation, etc., are borne mainly by the working class, partly by the intermediary economic groupings which are being expropriated during the war (which means in the process of the greatest centralisation of production).

It follows from the above that the actual process of economic development will proceed in the midst of a sharpened struggle between the state capitalist trusts and the backward economic formations. A series of wars is unavoidable. In the historic process which we are to witness in the near future, world capitalism will move in the direction of a universal state capitalist trust by absorbing the weaker formations. Once the present war is over, new problems will have to be "solved" by the sword. Partial agreements are, of course, possible here and there (e.g., the fusion of Germany anti Austria is quite probable). Every agreement or fusion, however, will only reproduce the bloody struggle on a new scale. Were "Central Europe" to unite according to the plans of the German imperialists, the situation would remain comparatively the same; but even were all of Europe to unite, it would not yet signify "disarmament." It would signify an unheard of rise of militarism because the problem to be solved would be a colossal struggle between Europe on the one hand, America and Asia on the other. The struggle among small (small!) state capitalist trusts would be replaced by a struggle between still more colossal trusts. To attempt to eliminate this struggle by "home remedies" and rose water is tantamount to bombarding an elephant with peas, for imperialism is not only a system most intimately connected with modern capitalism, it is also the most essential element of the latter.

We have seen in the second section the peculiarities in the structure of modern capitalism and the formation of state capitalist trusts. This economic structure, however, is connected with a certain policy, namely, the imperialist policy. This not only in the sense that imperialism is a product of finance capitalism, but also in the sense that finance capital cannot pursue any other policy than an imperialist one, as we characterised it above. The state capitalist trust cannot become an adherent of free trade for thereby it would lose a considerable part of its capitalist raison d'être. We have already pointed out that protectionism allows the acquisition of additional profits on the one hand, facilitates competition in the world market on the other. In the same way finance capital, expressing as it does capitalist monopoly organisations, cannot relinquish the policy of monopolising "spheres of influence," of seizing sales markets and markets for raw materials, or spheres of capital investment. If one state capitalist trust fails to get hold of an unoccupied territory, it will be occupied by another. Peaceful rivalry, which corresponded to the epoch of free competition and of the absence of any organisation of production at home, is absolutely inconceivable in the epoch of an entirely different production structure and of the struggle among state capitalist trusts. Those imperialist interests are of such magnitude for the finance capitalise groups, and they are so connected with the very foundations of their existence, that the governments do not shrink before the most colossal military expenditures only to secure for themselves a stable position in the world market. The idea of "disarmament" within the framework of capitalism is particularly absurd as far as the state capitalist trusts that occupy the foremost positions in the world market are concerned. Before their eyes there always shines the picture of subjugating the whole world, of acquiring an unheard of field for exploitation-a thing termed by the French imperialists l'organisation d'économie mondiale and by the German imperialists, Organisierung der Weltwirtschaft Would the bourgeoisie exchange this "high" ideal for the pot of porridge of disarmament? Where is the guarantee for a given state capitalist trust that a pernicious rival will not continue the "abandoned" policy in spite of all formal agreements and guarantees? Everyone acquainted with the history of the struggle among cartels even within the boundaries of one country knows how often, when the situation changed, when the market conditions changed, agreements dissolved like soap bubbles. Imagine a strong state capitalist trust like the U. S. waging war against a union of all other trusts-the "agreement" will then be shattered to pieces in no time. (In the latter case we would have a tremendous formation constructed after the type of an ordinary syndicate, and having the state capitalist trusts as its component parts. Such an agreement between the state capitalist trusts would not be able at once to skip all intermediary stages, to become a real centralised trust. A type of agreement, however, that implies intense internal struggle is easily amenable to the influence of changing conditions.) We have taken a hypothetical case where formal unification is a fact. However, this unification cannot take place because the bourgeoisie of every country is by no means as naïve as many of its bona fide pacifists who wish nothing more than to persuade the bourgeoisie and to "prove" to it that it does not understand its own advantages....

But, one may argue, this is exactly what Kautsky and his friends assume, namely, that the bourgeoisie will relinquish its imperialistic methods when it is compelled to do so by pressure from below. Our reply is that two possibilities are open in this case: either the pressure is weak, then everything remains as before; or the pressure is stronger than the "resistance," then we have before us not a new era of ultraimperialism but a new era of non-antagonistic social development.

The entire structure of world economy in our times forces the bourgeoisie to pursue an imperialist policy. As the colonial policy is inevitably connected with violent methods, so every capitalist expansion leads sooner or later to a bloody climax. "Violent methods," says Hilferding, "are inseparably bound up with the very essence of colonial policy, which without them would lose its capitalist meaning; they are so much an integral element of the colonial policy as the existence of a proletariat divorced from all ownership is generally a conditio sine qua non of capitalism. To be in favour of a colonial policy and at the same time to talk about eliminating its violent methods, is a dream which cannot be treated with more earnestness than the illusion that one can eliminate the proletariat while retaining capitalism."11)

The same thing may be said about imperialism. It is an integral element of finance capitalism without which the latter would lose its capitalist meaning. To imagine that the trusts, this embodiment of monopoly, have become the bearers of the free trade policy, of peaceful expansion, is a deeply harmful Utopian fantasy.

But is not the epoch of "ultra-imperialism" a real possibility after all, can it not be affected by the centralisation process? Will not the state capitalist trusts devour one another gradually until there comes into existence an all-embracing power which has conquered all the others? This possibility would be thinkable if we were to look at the social process as a purely mechanical one, without counting the forces that are hostile to the policy of imperialism. In reality, however, the wars that will follow each other on an ever larger scale must inevitably result in a shifting of the social forces. The centralisation process, looked at from the capitalist angle, will inevitably clash with a socio-political tendency that is antagonistic to the former. Therefore it can by no means reach its logical end; it suffers collapse and achieves completion only in a new, purified, non-capitalist form. It is for this reason that Kautsky's theory is by no means realisable. It looks upon imperialism not as an inevitable accompaniment of capitalist development, but as upon one of the "dark sides" of capitalist development. Like Proudhon, whose philistine Utopia Marx fought so bitterly, Kautsky wishes to eliminate "dark" imperialism leaving intact the "sunny" sides of the capitalist order. His concept implies a slurring over of the gigantic contradictions which rend asunder modern society, and in this respect it is a reformist concept. It is a characteristic feature of theorising reformism that it takes pains to point out all the elements of capitalism's adaptation to conditions without seeing its contradictions. For a consistent Marxist, the entire development of capitalism is nothing but a process of a continuous reproduction of the contradictions of capitalism on an ever wider scale. The future of world economy, as far as it is a capitalist economy, will not overcome its inherent lack of adaptation; on the contrary, it will keep on reproducing this lack of adaptation on an ever wider scale. These contradictions are actually harmonised in another production structure of the social organism-through a well-planned Socialist organisation of economic activities.


1) To understand everything, is to forgive everything. - Ed.

2) Marx once made a caustic remark about the "historic school" saying that "history reveals itself to them, as Jehovah, the God of Israel, to Moses, only a posteriori." This hits directly at the present-day renegades of Marxism.

3) Cf. Heinrich Cunow: Parteizusammenbruch? Ein offenes Wort zum inneren Parteistreit, Berlin, 1915.

4) Capital, Vol. I, p. 943.

5) We have seen that the absolute impossibility of overcoming capitalism does not exist for Marxists. When, however, there is a relative impossibility (e.g., capitalism in its initial stages), Marxists by no means undertake to "cultivate" capitalism, "to serve as apprentices in the capitalist system." This they leave to the Struves et tutti quanti. The Marxists will find other tasks.

6) Karl Kautsky: Nationalstaat, imperialistischer Staat and Staatenbund, also articles in the Neue Zeit for 1914-15. It must be noted that even earlier Kautsky took the point of view discussed in the text below. Such, for instance, was his stand on "disarmament."

7) Rudolf Hilferding, l.c., p. 295.

8) Ibid.

9) To avoid misunderstandings, we must emphasise that this assertion of ours by no means contradicts another one which says that the economic development of the foremost countries has created "objective prerequisites" for the social organisation of production. As far as the possibility of social production is concerned, the foremost countries are all on a comparatively equal level. There is no contradiction between those assertions, because the basis of differentiation is not the same.

10) The bourgeoise understands this perfectly well. Thus, a German professor, Max Krahmann (in his book, Krieg und Montanindustrie, Berlin, 1915,first volume of the series Krieg und Volkswirtschaft says "As in the present small [!] World War, so in the future great war, where North America and Eastern Asia will also have their word to say, it is entirely impossible for the group of agricultural states to fight the union of industrial states...Thus, universal peace [der Weltfrieden] could be secured, were the industrial states able to come to terms [sich vertragen könnten]. Since this is excluded for the time being, then..." etc. (p.15).

11) Hilferding, l.c., p. 401.