Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

A Century of Marxist Debates concerning Capitalism, Imperialism and Imperialist Competition

Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

A Century of Marxist Debates concerning Capitalism, Imperialism and Imperialist Competition

Article excerpt

The richer the political thinker is, the more diverse are the critics in their appreciation of their writings. In order to put their discourse within the reach of the common reader, some use simplifications which often amount to a trans- or deformation. Others underline some minor aspects to the detriment of its major premises. Even if more than one analysis would be acceptable, this does not mean that critics are free to say whatever they want about an author's production. Out-of-context references to the world market applied to the Communist Manifesto led a number of neo-Marxists to agree that the global spread of capitalism reflects faithfully the core of Marx's political thought. Therefore, it was considered relevant to emphasise Marx's notion of free trade.

Rejecting such trends of thought, albeit widely shared in Marxist literature, Radhika Desai, in her article "Marx, List, and the Materiality of Nations" (2012), counterclaims that Marx and Engels envisaged the necessity of the state in capitalist development. It has been well established, Desai adds, that the Bolsheviks promoted the principle of national self-determination and that Marxists were pioneers in the study of international relations through their analysis of imperialism. Furthermore, the national state has never ceased to play a major role contrary to the theories of "globalisation" and "empire."

The mechanical associating of capitalism to western imperialism has paved the way to ascribe Eurocentrism to Marxism. Yet one of the early Marxist thinkers, namely Rosa Luxemburg, attempted to develop the outlines of a theory explaining relations between capitalist states as well as their relationship to the non-capitalist countries. In The Accumulation of Capital there are many statements which affirm that Marx subscribed to the idea that "[T]he separation between politics and the economy was merely formal; it was also ideologically and politically fundamental to capitalism and imperialism" (Desai 2009, 191). The constant drive towards expansion inherent to capitalist production was a force that pushed the latter out towards non-capitalist parts of the world in search of raw materials and cheap labour. This task was mainly accomplished by centralised states. Luxemburg (2003) wrote that the principal tools used to spread the capitalist mode of production "are political force (war, revolution), oppressive taxation by the state, and cheap goods; . . . In Europe force assumed revolutionary forms in the fight against feudalism" (349). She went on to write that in the non-capitalist parts of the world, this mode mainly assumed the form of colonial policy.

By misunderstanding the material forces involved in classical Marxist analysis, many adepts and scholars of globalisation underestimated the major role played by states. This was not necessarily the case in Marxist theorising at the beginning of the twentieth century. In order to back up her statements regarding the materiality of nations, Desai (2012) proposes to analyse in depth the few Marxists "who attempt to account for the material basis of nationalism as an ideology . . . and for the role of the state in capitalism" (48). She argues that an artificial conception of capitalism which is based on omitting to assign any significant role to the state could hinder the Marxist geopolitical analyses from reaching satisfactory conclusions. Against many researchers who claim that current transformations within capitalism diminish the role of the state, a minority rightly advocate the relevance of critically re-examining this assertion.

Rudolf Hilferding exposed, for example, the economic relationships between capital and the state in his major work Finance Capital. In his view, the application of tariffs and other forms of protectionism as well as the notion of national economic territory that expanded beyond the borders of the state were essential to understanding imperialism. Hilferding (1981) also wrote on the relation between the rise of finance capital and the increase in state power which in turn had economic consequences, "Economic power also means political power. …

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