3. Is the U.S. the “only” imperialist country or is there an imperialist system?

It is discomforting for some people to think even of countries like Britain, Germany and France as imperialist countries, because—really—when they think of imperialism they are actually only thinking of the United States. The United States is “imperialism” for some people; they view this as an identity. To oppose imperialism is to oppose the United States. To build a united front against imperialism is to build the unity of virtually all the countries of the world against the United States. Or, if they admit that Britain, Germany and France might be junior partners of the U.S. in its imperial wars, then they still see countries like Russia and China as potential allies “against imperialism”. And similarly for murderous local dictators in individual economically underdeveloped (“Third World”) countries, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar al-Assad in Syria or the Islamic theocratic regime in Iran, who these people are always trying to find excuses for, or to support outright, in the name of “opposing imperialism”.[1]

And some people who, even in the face of ever-mounting and by now conclusive evidence, finally grudgingly admit that China is an imperialist country, at least according to Lenin’s definition, nevertheless still think of China (and often also Russia) as being important forces to ally with. Consider, for example, Jose Maria Sison, the chairperson of the International League for Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS). In 2012 Sison denounced the “false claim” that China “is rising as an imperialist rival of the United States”.[2] However, more recently still he modified his stance and stated in an interview:

“Indeed, the Dengist counterrevolution resulted in the restoration of capitalism in China and its integration in the world capitalist system. By Lenin’s economic definition of modern imperialism, China may qualify as imperialist. Bureaucrat and private monopoly capital has become dominant in Chinese society. Bank capital and industrial capital are merged. China is exporting surplus capital to other countries. Its capitalist enterprises combine with other foreign capitalist enterprises to exploit Chinese labor, third world countries and the global market.

“China colludes and competes with other imperialist countries in expanding economic territory, such as sources of cheap labor and raw materials, fields of investments, markets, strategic vantage points and spheres of influence. However, China has not yet engaged in a war of aggression to acquire a colony, a semicolony, protectorate or dependent country. It is not yet very violent in the struggle for a redivision of the world among the big capitalist powers.

“It is with respect to China’s contention with more aggressive and plunderous imperialist powers that may be somehow helpful to revolutionary movements in an objective and indirect way. China is playing an outstanding role in the economic bloc BRICS and in the security organization Shanghai Cooperation Organization beyond U.S. control.”[3]

China only “may” qualify as an imperialist country?! Note also in the second paragraph above how Sison seems to still view the acquisition of colonies (or semicolonies, protectorates, etc.) as being essential to imperialism—the way it was before World War II. There is something quite outdated in his conception. And note especially how Sison portrays China as a more palatable or acceptable form of imperialism (if it is to be called that at all) which still seems to him to be able to play a positive role in the world! This is tending dangerously close—and may have even crossed the line—to proclaiming “our imperialism” versus “theirs”!

However, it is not just the U.S. imperialists who are the enemy of the people of the world (even if they are at present the strongest and most vicious enemy); all imperialist countries are the enemy of the people, and all of them must be opposed. The entire imperialist system must be opposed and overthrown! And opposing imperialism should never come to mean supporting local tyrants and local enemies of the people, who, after all, were usually set up as imperialist lackeys and agents in the first place!

The key point that those who hold such views do not understand is that there is an imperialist system. The world imperialist system, as it presently exists, is in fact dominated by the U.S., especially militarily. But all the other imperialist countries, including not only Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan, but also Russia and China, are now part of, and participants in, this imperialist system. All these countries (and even some others, including Holland, Belgium, Canada, Australia and South Korea) benefit from this imperialist system and share in the plunder of the less economically developed countries and in the joint exploitation of the working people of the whole world that this system makes possible.

Everything has a history, and the world imperialist system also has a history. It developed out of the old system of quite separate empires consisting of colonies which were the exclusive preserve of one or another capitalist-imperialist country. This system proved to be unstable; the colonies kept rebelling and demanding freedom. And new imperialist powers arose (such as the U.S., Germany and Japan) which did not have many colonies, and were thus compelled to try to take some away from the existing empires. This led not only to fairly small wars, such as the Spanish-American War, in which the U.S. stole some of Spain’s colonies, but then to two horribly destructive world wars, and even to mass genocide by the Germans in Europe, the Japanese in China, Britain in India (through famine[4]), and the U.S. (via atom bombs) in Japan.

Even from the point of view of the imperialist powers with a lot of colonies there were some serious economic limitations due to the colonial system. While they could keep out other powers from their own colonies, they were in turn kept out of the colonies owned by those other powers. This meant there was an inherent inflexibility in options for the export of capital in the colonial imperialist era, even for the strongest imperialist countries.

So objectively capitalist-imperialism needed to change in a way that would allow a free scope for the worldwide predations by all the imperialist powers (operating under agreed upon rules of “fair play”) including for new imperialist powers if they arose, and at the same time to grant nominal “freedom” to the colonies. These are the basic reasons why the older-style capitalist-imperialism based on exclusive colonies that existed before World War II was soon transformed into the new world imperialist system based on neocolonialism[5] after that war.

The structure of this current world imperialist system had its origins in the “Allied Bloc” of imperialists during World War II. It was not only a military alliance during the war, but also set up international economic agencies (such as the IMF and World Bank) to manage its sphere of control after the war.

Once the Axis Bloc (of Germany, Italy and Japan) was defeated, it was absorbed into this Allied Bloc, which was then usually referred to as the “Western Bloc” (despite the inclusion of Japan). During the state-capitalist period of the USSR and the remainder of the Cold War, there were two essentially independent imperialist systems: the U.S.-led (“Western”) Bloc and the Soviet social-imperialist led (so-called “Socialist”) Bloc. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, they too were absorbed into the remaining bloc.

However, having now triumphed over almost the entire world, and defeated all its competitors, this was no longer just an imperialist “bloc”; it was now the world imperialist system.

China, during the Maoist era, was outside both of the two competing imperialist systems then existing from the late 1950s on. But after Mao’s death the capitalist-roaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, transformed China back into a capitalist country, whose ruling national bourgeoisie based in the CCP was then faced with the choice to try to develop China separately from the rest of the capitalist world, or to join up and become part of the existing world capitalist-imperialist system. They were compelled to choose the latter course, the only option with any real possibility of success. They “reformed” their own originally state-capitalist economy to a considerable degree along private monopoly capitalist lines[6], “opened up” to foreign capitalist investment, and joined the IMF (in 1980), the World Bank (in 1980) and the World Trade Organization (in 2001). They did this with eyes wide open, feeling that they could beat the U.S. and other major powers at their own game, because of China’s much greater exploitation of its own vast ocean of very low-paid workers. And so far their gamble has proven to be a great success, as measured by capitalist-imperialist standards (GDP growth rates, trade surpluses, the generation of great wealth for the Chinese bourgeoisie, etc.).

While the U.S. definitely dominated the “Western” imperialist bloc, and has dominated the world imperialist system, its degree of domination has been slipping very noticeably over the decades. As we will discuss below, the economic strength of the U.S. (as compared to the rest of the world) has declined tremendously since World War II. Europe’s economy is now bigger than the U.S. And now, with the rapid economic rise of China over the past few decades, the U.S. economic domination of the world has nearly ended. Politically and militarily too, the U.S. domination of the world imperialist system is weakening, though more slowly.

Sometimes this is expressed by saying that the once unipolar world dominated by a single superpower has become a multipolar world. (We will discuss this from another perspective later.) The decline of the United States and the considerable rise of other imperialist powers since World War II serves to further emphasize the importance of viewing contemporary imperialism as a world system, and by no means as the same thing as just U.S. imperialism alone.

It is quite true that the U.S. has been the “world’s top policeman” for the Western imperialist bloc since the end of World War II, and for the entire world imperialist system since the collapse of Soviet social-imperialism and its competing bloc in the 1989-91 timeframe. But the U.S. demands that its junior partners also participate in its imperialist wars (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan), and this need is further intensified because the economic weakening of the U.S. is making it ever more difficult for the U.S. to hold this world imperialist system together through its individual military might. And countries such as France and Britain often, and increasingly, take the lead in “maintaining order” (in a way that benefits all the major capitalist countries as well as themselves) in their smaller former colonies in Africa and elsewhere.

However, all the major capitalist countries greatly benefit from the military “policing” still carried out or directed mostly by the U.S. This policing is not just for the U.S. alone, but also on behalf of the entire imperialist world system. All these major capitalist countries, now including Russia and China, also participate in the economic penetration and exploitation of not only the less developed countries but are also allowed to invest in and operate exploitative corporations within each others’ borders. China’s current huge push into Africa, for example, is enabled because the U.S. (with the aid of Britain, France and others) is keeping the continent open and available for economic penetration and exploitation by all the capitalist powers.[7]

But you might ask: If the U.S. is doing most of the military fighting, or at least directing or controlling it, to maintain the world imperialist system, why then does it “allow” all these other major capitalist countries to share in the plunder? There are two main answers to this:

1) The U.S. recognized long ago that despite its great military power it could not hold the world imperialist system together all by itself. Unless other principal capitalist powers were allowed to benefit from the system they would oppose it, undermine it, and seek to build competing imperialist blocs and spheres of control, which might even lead to additional world wars. And in order for the U.S. to secure the right to sell to and invest in other leading capitalist countries, it has had to create international rules which allow those countries to also sell to and invest in America. (Furthermore, its bourgeois economic ideology erroneously maintains that every country will benefit more or less proportionally from such a system, and since it was the biggest it thought it would always benefit the most. And its political ideology favored the neocolonial method of world exploitation because it didn’t have many colonies itself!)

2) The U.S., in leading in setting up this world imperialist system, arranged for some very special benefits for itself that the other countries do not share. For example, it has a grossly disproportionate share in the control of the international institutions that were set up (especially the IMF and the World Bank). Even more importantly, the U.S. dollar was granted a special status in this world imperialist system. Initially this was because the U.S. owned most of the gold bullion in the world at the end of World War II, and the dollar was made convertible into gold. But even after President Nixon ended this (because the U.S. was rapidly being depleted of gold), the dollar still had a special status as the primary international reserve currency. Basically the U.S. has had the right since the end of World War II to just print dollars and buy the products of the world with them![8] (However, in recent decades more and more constraints have developed on this ever-more-reluctant munificence of the rest of the world toward the U.S. Moreover, the euro has now become one alternate reserve currency and there are predictions that the Chinese renminbi (or yuan) might someday soon also become an international reserve currency.[9])

So, yes, the U.S. has provided the primary military force to maintain this world imperialist system, but it was not just out of the “goodness of its heart”! It has gotten paid for doing this, and paid handsomely! Think of it this way: There has been a division of labor among a group of international gangsters. The chief enforcer has been the U.S., but the other gangsters have mostly been willing to have it this way since they have also benefitted tremendously from the arrangement. And the U.S. has been “willing” to share in the plunder both because it had to, and because it got a much bigger and more stable share of the loot by doing it this way.


[1] The International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) under Jose Maria Sison’s leadership, and one of the Trotskyist parties in the U.S., the Worker’s World Party, are two of the organizations that frequently support such reactionary leaders and their vicious regimes. We must oppose U.S. or other foreign imperialist intervention in these countries, but that certainly does not mean we should in any way support these murderous regimes themselves or refrain from strongly condemning them! It’s important to understand this distinction.

[2] Sison wrote “It is of urgent necessity that we learn about the social, economic, political and cultural degradation that China has undergone since the start of the capitalist restoration, in the face of false claims that China has become well developed, is responsive to the people’s needs, and is rising as an imperialist rival of the United States.” [From his foreword to Pao-yu Ching, Revolution and Counterrevolution: China’s Continuing Class Struggle Since Liberation (Manila: Institute of Political Economy, 2012).] Certainly it is true that the new bourgeoisie ruling China is not “responsive to the people’s needs”; but it flies in the face of reality to deny that China has undergone a very rapid economic development, or to fail to see that China is now a rapidly rising imperialist power.

[3] “The Communist Party of the Philippines on Maoism, New Democratic Revolution, China & the Current World”, an interview with Prof. Jose Maria Sison, Founding Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, by New Culture Magazine of the Communist Reconstruction Union of Brazil, not dated, but apparently from late 2013 or else January 2014. Online at: http://www.josemariasison.org/?p=13979 [as of Jan. 25, 2014].

[4] For a brief discussion of this British-caused famine in India and further references see: http://www.massline.org/Dictionary/FA.htm#famines_imperialist

[5] We are using the term ‘neocolonialism’ in a broad sense which typically means that the country in question is in effect the collective property of all the capitalist-imperialist powers; sometimes this is also called ‘post-colonialism’. We are not using the term ‘neocolonialism’ in the sense it is occasionally used by some, to mean a country that is a hidden colony of a single capitalist-imperialist power, such as perhaps the same power which formerly controlled it as an open colony.

[6] In a later section we will discuss the organization of Chinese capitalism today in a bit more detail. But while it is true that there are still many very important state-owned enterprises (SOEs), it has also become true that these corporations which are officially owned by the state now actually function pretty much the same way as the “private” Chinese corporations do in the national and international market, i.e., as if they were ordinary MNCs. And while Chinese capitalism today still has a stronger state participation in its entire economy (including the private sector) than do most other countries, nevertheless positively all capitalist-imperialist countries today can be viewed as a partial merger of the state with the capitalist economy. Moreover, that state intervention and direction is qualitatively expanding everywhere as the world economic crisis continues to develop.

[7] We could also mention in this connection the U.S. military’s AFRICOM command, which has placed military advisors in many African countries; the significant role played by the French imperialists in “stabilizing” the Ivory Coast, Mali and other countries, and in bringing down the Gaddafi (Quaddafi) regime in Libya; and the development of a few countries such as Nigeria as regional cops sometimes working in the service of the world imperialist system.

[8] This remains a major irritation to other imperialist countries. For example, in a recent “leader” (editorial) the Economist, a leading publication of the British ruling class, noted that “America enjoys the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of printing the world’s reserve currency.” [Oct. 5, 2013, p. 11.]

[9] In 2011 Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics even predicted that “the renminbi could replace the dollar as the world’s largest reserve currency” within 10 years! [Charles Kenny, “The Case for Second Place”, Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 17-23, 2011, p. 15.]

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