Introductory Education Programme

SECTION FIVE - What is imperialism?

150 years ago, capitalism was in its infancy. By the end of the 19th century, it had become a world-wide system, and had divided the world into oppressed and oppressor nations: capitalism had developed into imperialism. The political form of this division was colonialism, as a handful of oppressor, imperialist powers divided the world between themselves in countless wars of conquest. Colonies provided a source of super-profits for imperialism, whereby it could postpone the periodic crisis of capitalism.

However, it could not abolish such crises, and when they took place, they would necessarily have a world dimension. The first such crisis matured at the turn of the 19th century as the various imperialist powers, having divided the world between themselves once, sought to re-divide it. The inevitable consequence of this was world war - the First Imperialist War of 1914-18. Tens of millions of working class people were slaughtered to protect the interests of ‘their’ bankers and monopolies, ‘their’ ruling class. Not even this carnage and mass destruction resolved the crisis: it took the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of fascism and the Second World War before imperialism was able to obtain a significant measure of political and economic stability during the post-war boom.

Today, a process which is often labelled ‘globalisation’ signifies a return to those unstable features of capitalism which characterised imperialism before the First World War. ‘Globalisation’ is creating the very conditions which produced those dramatic shocks to the international capitalist economy and which led to the revolutionary developments in the first decades of the twentieth century. This increasing instability and increasing inequality between rich and poor nations, both key features of imperialism, are laying the ground for conditions where the socialist message can once again take root.

The national liberation struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism are an essential part of the struggle for socialism. Marx and Engels’ changing analysis of Ireland and its relation to Britain demonstrated how a nation that oppresses another could not itself be free. A pre-condition for the advance of the proletariat in Britain was support for the emancipation of Ireland. This analysis provided a model for Lenin to develop a communist position on the right of nations to self-determination.

The revolutionary waves that have swept throughout the twentieth century demonstrate the significance of the struggle for self-determination and the national democratic revolution in the struggle for socialism: China, Yugoslavia, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Southern Africa. Communists must, if they are to remain communists, give the national liberation struggle support for we face the same enemy and ultimately have the same goal.

Opportunists impose conditions on support for national liberation movements and seek to deny the revolutionary and democratic content of the struggles and the role of the working class and oppressed within them. More often than not the left will ignore these movements or dismiss them as irrelevant or invalid. This has particularly been the case with the Irish republican movement.

National liberation movements combine different social and class forces. Communists support the movements and try to strengthen their working class and socialist content. This is an essential step if such movements are to achieve their objective: where bourgeois forces remain ascendant, they will seek a compromise with imperialism, as in Palestine or South Africa.

Primary Reading: ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ by David Yaffe – FRFI 194 December 2006/January 2007

Supplementary Reading:

On the Political Economy of Imperialism


On Imperialism and the National Question