Washed-up ex-Trot sellout I may be, but even at my most orthodox and ra-ra-revolutionary I always had a problem with the term 'imperialism' as applied to global capitalism after the Second World War. In Marxism as practiced by official communism and the 57 varieties, imperialism has a highly specific meaning. In Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, it marks the point where capitalism in its advanced metropolitan heartlands has become dominated by monopolies and the merging of industrial and finance capital. To seek new profitable opportunities, capital of necessity must seek new markets and, in the case of imperialism, create them. In the colonies and 'protectorates' of the European great powers, feudal and communal social relations were uprooted and destroyed and economies developed that fed the markets back home. Africa, India, the Orient, whole nations fell before the imperial powers' scramble for territory and resource. And, more often than not, the development they introduced was as brutal as it was one-sided and partial. Imperialism therefore is not a policy - it's a structural imperative.
With the globe more or less divided among the imperial powers, the road to war between them for a redivision of the spoils is more or less inevitable. It was this that underlay the tensions and rivalry between the great powers that led to the slaughter of the two World Wars. There is, of course, a bit more to Lenin's theory of imperialism - especially with regard to the 'super profits' of imperialism being used to provide a higher standard of living for a key stratum of the working class as a means of buying off revolt. But that's more or less it as it stands.
Now, some on the far left might still quote Lenin's pamphlet as if it is the truth revealed some 97 years after publication, but a thing or two has changed in the interval. Colonialism has languished in the dustbin of history for quite some time. The US is the preeminent global power, albeit one in relative decline. The rivalries between the big powers has not been realised in inter-state warfare for nearly 70 years, and there is very little question of emergent states wishing to paint the world map Empire pink. But nevertheless the key theoretical insights remain. Capital from the advanced economies, but also from the new industrial powers, roam the world seeking profitable outlets. In the former colonies the process of expanding the sphere of capitalist relations of production continues, often at the behest of foreign capital. There clearly remains one-sided, disadvantageous relationships between ex-colonies and the former occupying power. And, overall, international relations are characterised by systemic patterns of hegemony and dominance.
You can understand why Lenin's position is still regarded, by some, as authoritative. After all, an ABC of Marxism is the distinction between appearance and essence. So, where international relations are concerned, the empires of Lenin's day are gone but the character of global political economy is not qualitatively different. That said, I still think it's faintly ridiculous to drone on about 'imperialism'.
Language in politics is important, so how you frame your positions and policies is vital. And I don't think the far left who, as a whole, do the right thing to highlight the machinations and interests of the big powers, have grasped this most simple of political rules. Take Syria, for example. The US, Britain and France would prefer a friendly regime installed because it is in their interests that this most crucial of geopolitical regions is not destabilised further. That the Middle East today is mostly what it is because of repeated interventions and the propping up of rancid dictatorships by the big powers is neither here nor there. Clearly, they want to impose a settlement that suits their interests - even if it means overtly arming jihadists and cannibals in Syria itself.
But as far as I'm concerned, quite apart from the tendency for some of the left to give anti-Western opposition a free pass; to refer to the actions of US, British, and French imperialism or, even worse, 'Imperialism' as some malevolent free-roaming entity is to frame the issues in some of the most archaic and alienating language in the far left's vocabulary. For most people imperialism in its wider meaning is synonymous with colonialism and annexation, or even Darth Vader's pursuit of the Rebel Alliance. As an apt description of the USA's pursuit of its geopolitical interests? Well, chances are it would be well down the list.
If your slogans, your banners, your propaganda are peppered with words likely to confuse or obstruct the meaning of the message you wish to convey, it would be wise to think about using them again. Can the ideas and understanding of how global political economy works be better and more popularly conveyed without resorting to the term? I'm sure they can. It's time to junk 'imperialism'.