Imperialism: A Beginner’s Guide

In waging its resistance to capitalist exploitation abroad, the worker’s movement has heavily involved itself in anti-imperialism in its actions and stances. In resisting this force, it is essential for us to have a coherent and consistent understanding of imperialism. What is it? What are its forms? What brought it about and how are we to resist it?

These questions and more have been engaged in full by the classical theorists of Marxism-Leninism and expounded upon in detail. As such, we at do not pretend that we can summarize every aspect of this phenomena in adequate detail in only one article. Rather, this article is intended as a beginner’s guide to understanding imperialism in general terms.

For more information, it is highly recommended that the reader consult the works of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Enver Hoxha on the topic, as well as other Marxist-Leninists who have engaged the subject of imperialism in our time.

Imperialism: What is it?

To put it simply, imperialism is the highest evolution of the capitalist system beyond the borders of individual nation-states, allowing for the exploitation of workers and material resources trans-nationally. As capitalists consolidate their institutions and corporations into monopolies, fueling this expanding network of corporate conglomerates through the emergence of a finance industry which gives industrialists additional capital toward these ends, there is increased incentive to exploit material and human resources abroad.

What imperialism does is create a means for powerful capitalists in some countries to expand their empire into others, benefiting from the labor power and raw materials which would otherwise belong to another nation-state utilized for that state’s own industry, leading to drastically higher profits for the imperialists.

Imperialism as Capitalism’s Evolution

Imperialism is an inevitable evolution in a capitalist system. What drives this inevitability is the profit motive itself. Where the technology allows for the potential for reaping profits outside of the confines of national and state boundaries, where the need arises for commodities, for means of production and labor resources outside of the immediate surroundings of capitalists in their own country, the incentive to push beyond exists. As well, the existence of other imperialist powers works to encourage increasingly colonialist attitudes towards those countries that already exist in a subservient position to imperialist powers. Why sit idly by when there is a profit to be made, and why sit on their hands when their rivals might take the opportunity sooner?

Imperialist War & Transnational Exploitation

This drive for colonies and client states has been a major motivation for war in post-feudal society. The early 20th century saw much in the way of imperialist competition over colonies and protectorates in Africa, Asia and Latin America by Germany, Great Britain, France, and other European countries.

It was in this context that the first genocides of the 20th century, those perpetrated by Germany against the Herero and Nama peoples, took place and set precedents for later genocides which would take place in that century. The drive for profits and power lead the leading capitalists to pour their funds into colonialist projects reaching over much of the face of the earth. The United States played its part in the imperialist blood-letting as well, committing troops to the Philippines in 1899 as well as utilizing the opportunities presented in World War I and World War 2 to expand its influence into Europe and elsewhere.

Nationalism and Racism: Imperialism’s fig-leaves

In order to get their populations to go along with bloody acts of imperialism, nationalism and notions of racial superiority have been implemented to justify the domination of other peoples. In 1899, the same year as the United States began its involvement in the colonial domination of the Philipines, Rudyard Kipling published a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden.” While there are those intellectuals who will defend Kipling for writing this as satire, the essential message of the poem is that imperialism is a positive mechanism for raising up backward and “savage” peoples. He writes:

Take up the White Man’s burden–

In patience to abide,

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple,

An hundred times made plain

To seek another’s profit,

And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–

The savage wars of peace–

Fill full the mouth of Famine

And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest

The end for others sought,

Watch sloth and heathen Folly

Bring all your hopes to nought.

This argument, that imperialism endeavors to colonize peoples “for their own good” and is necessary to raise people up from “backwardness” has been used in many an imperialist war. In the United States, as an emerging bourgeois state was trying to capture land and mineral resources from lands occupied by indigenous peoples, the massacre of Native peoples in the process of manifest destiny was made out to be, in part, a means of “taming the wild man.” What followed after decades of massacre, the indoctrination and abuse of children through boarding schools, theft of land and betrayal of treaties was not an “uplifting” of native peoples, but their destruction. Now, as imperialism suggests war as a means of “spreading democracy” in “backward regions of the globe,” one must heed the lesson that imperialism is not about helping the colonized, lest that “help” be helping them into a shallow grave.

National Liberation

In their defense against the bloody threat posed by imperialism, the workers and colonized peoples of the world have taken up one principle weapon to defending their lives, livelihoods and homelands from invasion and colonization. That force is national liberation, which comes as the result of a nation’s people organizing and fighting on behalf of their national sovereignty and independence from imperialist powers. It is national liberation movements that pose the greatest means of defense for peoples facing imperialist domination. When these movements continually exert pressure on invaders, from protests and strikes to taking up arms against their armies, national liberation movements sap energy from imperialist forces and make their occupations increasingly more costly. From the Eastern Front in World War II to decolonization in Africa and Asia, from Vietnam to Iraq, Afghanistan to Palistine and elsewhere, national liberation struggles have fought to throw off the chains of imperialism. While some collaborate and preach reformist non-solutions to the travesty of colonialist violence and conquest, there are those willing to sacrifice their lives for liberation.


Imperialism can and must be fought on more fronts than this. Workers of all countries should lend their voices and action to both resisting the implementation of imperialist programs and policies on behalf of their own nation (like, for instance, protesting against the latest imperialist war) and supporting the struggles of those who fight on the front lines against imperialist invasion in their own countries. This force, this solidarity of workers the world over against imperialism and colonialism, is a prime example of internationalism. Internationalism is the consummate thorn in the side of imperialism both in practical and ideological terms. It not only works to resist nationalism and racism, the ideological grease that lubricates imperialism’s gears, but it also brings the battle to imperialism’s doorstep.

We saw such internationalism in the US anti-war movement during Vietnam and see it manifested today in the modern anti-war movement and solidarity work to lend support to movements abroad fighting imperialism. Just as imperialism does everything in its power to break national liberation movements through violence and economic repression (blockades, etc) imperialism also works to battle efforts of solidarity with colonized peoples at home, as we have seen through notorious domestic surveillance programs like COINTELPRO and in the recent raids on peaceful anti-war activists by Obama’s FBI.

Carry on the Struggle against Imperialism!

Imperialism is capitalism’s bloodiest and most hegemonic form. It is the most powerful and sadistic force arrayed against the workers of the world. It is a threat to us all, whether we are a Palestinian family fearing massacre at the hands of Israeli White Phosphorus attacks or an anti-war activist having the jack-boots of state-repression kicking down the door for daring to lend your voice to the cause of national liberation. This force is one that requires all of our work to resist, for there can be no peace nor justice in a world of the dominators and the dominated.

Categories: Colonialism, Economic Exploitation, Economics, History, Imperialism, Imperialist War, International, Philippines, Racist Oppression, Science, Theory, United States History, Workers Struggle, World History

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