Why Carlos Martinez’s and the Multipolaristas’ View of Imperialism is Too Simple

By Stephen Gowans

May 6, 2022

Carlos Martinez, a friend of what he believes to be a socialist China, but is in reality a very capitalist China, has a very simple view of imperialism, or, to be more precise, a view that clashes with what I consider to be more complex.

According to Martinez, “’the imperialist system’” is expressed as “’an imperialist alliance led by the U.S. (and incorporating Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan) which engages precisely in a global ‘process of domination guided by economic interests.’ This takes the form of a network of 800 military bases; unilateral sanctions against dozens of countries; wars of regime change; proxy wars; destabilisation campaigns; structural adjustment programs; nuclear threats; and more.” In other words, imperialism is a specifically US alliance of domination based on military and economic power.

My view of imperialism follows along the lines of those developed by Hilferding in Finance Capital, Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy, and Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism.

In the era of advanced capitalism, imperialism is a world economic system of rivalry among states for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities and strategic territory on behalf of their capital accumulating enterprises. Importantly, in this view, imperialism is defined as a system of rivalry, in which all major capitalist powers are compelled to take part by the system’s imperatives.

Carlos views the United States as a capitalist behemoth that has taken an aggressive attitude toward China, which it seeks to contain. I agree with this assessment. Where I disagree with Carlos is in this: He sees China’s defense against US predation as anti-imperialism, rather than as an expression of the antagonism that is inevitable between two large capitalist powers competing in a global capitalist system. The rivalry touches competition for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory (including maritime routes.) China’s actions may be defensive, and those of the US and its satellites aggressive, but China’s actions, defensive though they may be, are nonetheless competitive actions, part of the capitalist-driven rivalry between the two powers.

As a major, and by some accounts the major, actor in the global capitalist system, China has no option but to compete against other capitalist powers for profit-accumulating opportunities around the world. Its compulsion to engage in capitalist competition on a global scale is all the stronger for the Chinese Communist Party pursuing a model of raising China and recovering its greatness through capitalist, and specifically Listian, methods.

While China may face fierce and aggressive competition from the United States (and other major capitalist powers) it is not outside of that competition. Carlos has essentially defined imperialism as highly aggressive competition led by the United States based on military and economic power. In excluding economic antagonism and focusing exclusively on the strength of the US and its satellites (and excluding two major actors in the world economic system, China and Russia), Carlos’s view is at odds with the model developed by the three Marxists cited above. Curiously, he defines this model as “pseudo-Marxism.”

One embarrassing implication of Carlos’ definition, in my view, is that it excludes the Axis powers as imperialists. 1930s Germany, Italy, and Japan complained bitterly that the major imperialist powers of the day, Britain, France, and the United States, sought to contain the trio’s development and deny them their place in the sun. In other words, they argued for greater multipolarity. To be sure, in the capitalist competition for profit-making opportunities around the world, the Axis powers fared poorly by the standards of their more powerful rivals. Their bristling against US, British, and French encroachments on what they viewed as their neighborhoods and spheres of influence were seen in Axis capitals as imperialist predations. By Carlos’s definition, the efforts of the Axis powers to recalcitrate against the stronger powers (to defend themselves, they said) and redivide the world was anti-imperialism, not the expression of antagonism between one set of weaker capitalist powers against another set of stronger ones.

Carlos’s definition of imperialism emerges from a view that the world would be a better place were the overwhelming power of the United States checked by the emergence of peer competitors. This is, in a way, a simple inversion of Washington’s view. Washington sees the re-emergence of great power rivalry as a threat. In the view of the multipolar advocates, whatever is a threat to the United States must be a blessing for the people whom the dominant power tyrannizes.  

The problem with this view is that it fails to take the context of a world capitalist economy into account. If three yahoos engage in fisticuffs in a small room in which tens of people are entrapped, and one yahoo is very strong and the other two are weaker, and as they fight, they trample and fall upon those who can’t escape, then building the strength of the weaker two at the expense of the stronger isn’t going to make the people in the room any safer. The only way to bring calm and safety to the room is to bring the fighting to an end. In less metaphorical language, that means ending capitalism and its ineluctable antagonisms among classes and states, not seeking a more equal development among capitalist powers to continue their war of capitalist rivalry.

Far from being a step forward, a midpoint on the road to revolution, as some seem to think, a multipolar world is in fact a return to conditions that brought us the industrial exterminations of two world wars. It is a regression, a worsening of existing conditions. The answer is not a return to a more intense antagonism among equally balanced capitalist states, a more perilous world even than the one in which we’re already mired, but an end to classes and states altogether.

A nonpolar world in which imperialism has been transcended, in contradistinction to a multipolarity of roughly equally balanced capitalist powers, is not, pace Carlos, a pseudo-Marxist aspiration. It is the very essence of Marxism.