VII. Imperialist Great Powers: Some Historical Comparisons





Capitalism has seen various changes and modifications in the past hundred years albeit its essence has remained the same. The productive forces have grown and, as a result, the internationalization of the economy, the prevalent role of the world economy, has increased (“globalization” of trade, investment, migration, etc.). Related to this is the shift of capitalist value production from the old imperialist countries to new imperialist powers (in particular China) and the semi-colonial South and, as a result, a shift of the center of gravity of the world proletariat in the same direction. From this follows an increasing super-exploitation of the oppressed people by the imperialists as well as a tendency to a further bourgeoisification of the labor movement in the old imperialist countries. [1]


There have been also important changes in the relations between the imperialist Great Powers. Until 1917, the world was shaped by the bloody rivalry between the imperialist Great Powers. This rivalry continued after WWI for two decades (albeit without major wars in the heartlands of imperialism), before it resulted in another, even more destructive, world war. However, the situation was complicated since 1917 by two crucial factors: first the emergence of the USSR as the first workers state of the world and, secondly, with the upswing of anti-colonial liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples. While the USSR degenerated under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, it remained an important anti-capitalist factor.


World War II ended with a victory of the USSR based on the heroic resistance of the people in the Soviet Union as well as in China, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Italy, France, etc. [2] Since the Stalinist bureaucracy, as well as fascism, had annihilated many revolutionary cadre, it could also succeed in pacifying the working class uprisings and channel them for the purpose of expanding its sphere of influence. Nevertheless, the result of this development was that by the end of the 1940s not only the USSR but also China, the North of Korea, Eastern Europe and most of the Balkans were no longer capitalist.


The outcome of World War II did also result in a profound regroupement within the imperialist camp. The defeat of German and Japanese imperialism, the shattered status of Britain and France and the enormous strength of the U.S. resulted in the absolute domination of the latter within the imperialist camp. This tendency was reinforced with the beginning of the Cold War in the later 1940s which consolidated the alliance of the imperialist Great Powers under the leadership of Washington.


While this development did not eliminate the rivalry between the Great Powers, it certainly subordinated these tendencies to the overriding priority of the imperialists to stand together against the post-capitalist bureaucratic workers states and the anti-imperialist uprisings of the oppressed peoples which took place on all continents.


The collapse of the Stalinist camp in 1989-91 and the restoration of capitalism at first expanded the hegemony of the U.S. as it has been the dominant imperialist force for half a century. The imperialist propagandists cheered and were optimistic about the future. Who could forget the silly proclamation of Francis Fukuyama about “the End of History”?! [3] That period reminded one to the characterization of the American economic historian David Landes about the period at the early 20th century.


In the last years of the century, prices began to rise and profits with them. As business improved, confidence returned-not the spotty, evanescent confidence of the brief booms that had punctuated the gloom of the preceding decades, but a general euphoria such as had not prevailed since the Gründerjahre of the early 1870's. Everything seemed right again-in spite of rattlings of arms and monitory Marxist references to the 'last stage' of capitalism. In all of Western Europe, these years live on in memory as the good old days-the Edwardian era, la belle époque.[4]


However, the slow economic decline of U.S. imperialism, which began already long before, accelerated gradually. In 2001, Washington launched its reactionary “War on Terror” – a huge reactionary offensive which used the 9/11 attack as a pretext. This militarist offensive of U.S. imperialism has been essentially an attempt to impede its decline – and has caused the death of about half a million people until now! [5] However, this attempt basically failed as the U.S. a) could not achieve lasting victories in its colonial aggression and b) could not halt the rise of new imperialist Great Powers like China and Russia.


The lunatic Trump Administration is both a symbol for the decay of Washington as well as an attempt to regain absolute hegemony by combination of aggressive foreign policy against all rivals. This attempt is obviously doomed to collapse.


This brief historic overview should help us to identify the main features of the relations between the Great Powers and their inner contradictions. Looking for historical analogies, it seems to us that the world situation most similar to the present one is the historic period before World War I. However, we have to note that there are two important factors which differentiate the present world situation from the one before 1914. First, the massive gain in importance of countries and powers outside of the old Western Great Powers and, hence, of the class struggles in these parts of the world. And, secondly, the menacing danger of the climate catastrophe caused by the reckless capitalist corporations.


Taking these modifications into account, we have to stress that the essence of the world capitalist system has not substantially changed. The capitalist hunt for profits, the rivalry between the monopolies and the Great Powers, the exploitation of the working class and the super-exploitation of the South, the historic decline of the capitalist system (tendency of the profit rate to fall, etc.) – all these essential features of modern capitalism still dominate the fate of humanity.


Hence, it is clear to us that the program of class struggle against imperialism and wars, as it was developed by the Marxist classics of the 20th century, remains fully valid in its essential features. However, the challenge for Marxists is not only to uphold their fundamental principles but also to apply them to concrete situations of conflicts and struggles in a concrete way.




Excurse: The Law of Uneven and Combined Development




Our overview of the development of the rivaling Great Powers already indicated to the uneven nature of this process and the interdependence between the different poles in this relationship. This demonstrates the fact that an understanding of the historical development of capitalism in general and of the relationships between the Great Powers in particular is impossible without recognizing the central importance of the law of uneven and combined development as it was elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky. Hence we will briefly summarize the essence of this law. [6]


This law explains – if we formulate it in a very general way – how different stages of development as well as different tempos of development in a given society interact with one another and thereby result in different forms or types of development. Naturally, this same process also takes place between different societies. Trotsky, first developed such a conception – together with his strategy of permanent revolution – in 1905/06 when he tried to explain the possible roads of Russia’s social development. He showed that Russia – despite its massive social and economic backwardness compared to Western Europe and hence the related small size of its proletariat – could witness a working class-led revolution without having experienced first a long period of capitalist development as that which took place in Western Europe.


The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity, their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development—by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third, or tenth cultural class.[7]


Later, and in particular after the experience of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27, Trotsky generalized this conception and deduced from it the strategy of permanent revolution. He would also generalize the meaning of his law of uneven and combined development and see in it a central concept relevant for the whole of human history. Trotsky absolutely rejected the Stalinist idea that human society inevitably develops through an irrevocable succession of necessary stages. Rather history develops in leaps and in different patterns in different countries. Replying to Stalin’s assertion that this law is only relevant for the capitalist epoch, Trotsky emphasized "that the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development.“ [8]


In his critique of the Stalinist draft program for the Communist International, Trotsky explained the relevance of this law to understand the process of relations between nations, including their abrupt changes, in modern capitalism.


Capitalism finds various sections of mankind at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs, serve as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this main process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative leveling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence.


By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and leveling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlation of these two fundamental tendencies - both of which arise from the nature of capitalism - explains to us the living texture of the historical process.


Imperialism, thanks to the universality, penetrability, and mobility and the break-neck speed of the formation of finance capital as the driving force of imperialism, lends vigor to both these tendencies. Imperialism links up incomparably more rapidly and more deeply the individual national and continental units into a single entity, bringing them into the closest and most vital dependence upon each other and rendering their economic methods, social forms, and levels of development more identical. At the same time, it attains this "goal" by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and leveling of world economy which it has effected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs.[9]


Here is not the place to discuss the law of uneven and combined development in general. Instead we will limit ourselves to discuss its relevance to the focus of this work – the rivalry between the Great Powers. As we can see, Lenin and Trotsky considered this law as relevant not only for the so-called backward (semi-)colonial countries or the relationship between the imperialist and the (semi-)colonial states but also for the relationship between the Great Powers themselves. The following two quotes of Trotsky and Lenin demonstrate this very clearly.


... the privilege of historical backwardness – and such a privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development... The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historical process.[10]


Defending the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe, we pointed out in 1915, that the law of uneven development is in itself no argument against this slogan, because the unevenness of historical development of different countries and continents is in itself uneven. European countries develop unevenly in relation to one another. Nevertheless it can be maintained with absolute historical certainty that not a single one of these countries is fated, at least in the historical epoch under review, to run so far ahead in relation to other countries as America has run ahead of Europe. For America there is one scale of unevenness, for Europe there is another. Geographically and historically, conditions have predetermined such a close organic bond between the countries of Europe that there is no way for them to tear themselves out of it. The modern bourgeois governments of Europe are like murderers chained to a single cart.[11]


Likewise, Lenin observed uneven development not only in Russia itself but also on a global scale. In Russia, modern capitalist enterprises existed alongside backward semi-feudal agrarian forms of exploitation. On a global scale, Lenin could see the most developed capitalist country, England, stagnating while other countries with a belated capitalist development rose dramatically (e.g., America and Japan). Likewise, capital export from the European imperialist countries to economically backward colonies created amalgamations of different modes of production and thus led to accelerated economic growth in the latter countries. Lenin concluded that „uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism.[12]


Lenin emphasized the importance of the law of uneven development in the relations between the Great Powers. He explained that it is exactly this law which helps to understand why a stable relationship between the Great Powers is impossible and why there have to be ruptures and, eventually, wars between them.


The question has only to be presented clearly for any other than a negative answer to be impossible. This is because the only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc., is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc. And the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. Half a century ago Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with that of the Britain of that time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it “conceivable” that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question.[13]


And indeed, if we look to the development of capitalism in earlier periods of the imperialist epoch, we will see a full confirmation of such an uneven development between the Great Powers as we will demonstrate below.


Such unevenness between the Great Powers at the time of Lenin and Trotsky is important to recognize particularly since various deniers of the imperialist nature of China and Russia today claim that the Marxist classics considered only the strongest and most advanced capitalist nations as “imperialist”. We have already refuted this claim above in chapter IV. But let us demonstrate the uneven character of the imperialist Great Powers in earlier periods of imperialism more in detail below.




Some Historical Examples about the Unevenness of the Great Powers before 1939




As we have noted above, one could differentiate the imperialist Great Powers in early 20th century, broadly speaking, in old, “mature” imperialist powers (like Britain or France), newer, rising powers (like the U.S. or Germany) as well as more backward powers (like Russia, Austrian-Hungary Empire, Italy or Japan). As we have elaborated in several works, unevenness existed between these Great Powers in several aspects like industrial development, economic productivity, capital export, loans, etc. – not dissimilar to differences between the present imperialist powers. [14]


Most obvious was the massive difference between advanced imperialist powers and the more backward. At this point it should be sufficient to give just two examples. In Table 16 we see the huge differences in labor productivity between countries like Britain or the U.S. on one side and of backward imperialist powers like Russia, Japan or Spain on the other side.




Table 16. Population and Gross Domestic Product in 1913 [15]


                                                                Population                          GDP                                      GDP


                                                                (in Million)                          in $ Billions                        Per Capita in $


United States                                      97.6                                        517.4                                      5,301


United Kingdom                                45.6                                        224.6                                      4,921


Spain                                                     20.3                                        45.7                                        2,255


Russia                                                   156.2                                      232.3                                      1,488


Japan                                                     51.7                                        71.6                                        1,387


China                                                    437.1                                      241.3                                      552




In Table 17 we see figures of GDP per capita and relative levels of industrialization for several imperialist powers on the eve of WWI. Similar to what we see today, in 1913 there were huge differences in productivity between the Western imperialist powers and their Eastern rivals. Britain’s industrial production per capita (serving as the base of comparison with a value of 100) was, for example, more than three times as large as Austria’s, four times bigger than Italy’s, and six times the size of Russia’s.




Table 17. Relative GDP per capita (column A) and relative levels of industrialization (column B) in 1913 [16]


Country                A             B


Britain                   100         100


France                   81           51


Germany              77           74


Austria                 62           29


Italy                       52           23


Spain                     48           19


Russia                   29           17




Such unevenness in the economic development, as we demonstrated, did not stop Lenin to characterize “backward” Great Powers like Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy or Japan as imperialist. See for example his reference to the imperialist character of country like Japan, despite its much weaker economic development stage.


Capitalism is growing with the greatest rapidity in the colonies and in overseas countries. Among the latter, new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan).[17]


However, a closer look to the historical data will demonstrate that unevenness did not only exist between the developed and the backward Great Powers but also between the Western imperialist states themselves. This was, first, obviously the case in terms of colonial possessions. While Britain and France had vast global Empires under their control, Germany and the U.S. had hardly any colonies.


We see similar unevenness among the Western Great Powers when we look to the role of capital export. As Table 18 demonstrates, capital export played a much more important role for Britain than commodity production and trade. This is not surprising as Britain was the dominant imperialist power at that time (historically it played a similar role to the US in the second half of the 20th century). London alone controlled nearly half of the world’s foreign investment. Its share in capital export was nearly 2,5 times as large than its share in the world’s industrial production and trade. The situation was not much different in France. However, in the case of Germany we see an imperialist power which capital export did not play a larger role than its commodity trade. And in the case of the United States we see a picture where commodity production and trade played a significantly larger role than its capital export.




Table 18. Great Powers’ Share in Industrial Production, Trade and Capital Export, 1913 [18]


                                                Industrial Production      World Trade       Overseas Investment


Great Britain                         14%                                        15%                        41%


United States                        36%                                        11%                        8%


Germany                                16%                                        13%                        13%


France                                    6%                                          8%                          20%




To a certain degree the U.S. was at the beginning of the 20th century in a similar position like China has been in the past decade. It was a newcomer and its capital export lagged behind the established imperialist powers.


This is also evident from another indicator. As Table 18 demonstrated, the U.S. was not a major contributor for capital export – its share in the global stocks was not even 1/5 of Britain’s. At the same time, the United States were by far the largest recipient of foreign investments by 1913/14 when it imported $7.1 Billion – the equivalent of 15.8% of the global foreign investment. [19] In Table 19 we see that by 1914, US imperialism received more than double as much investment from foreign sources than U.S. nationals invested abroad.




Table 19. Foreign Investment Position of the United States, 1914 (in billions of U.S. dollars) [20]


                                      U.S. investments abroad                                                     Foreign investments in U.S.                              


Total            Government          Private accounts                                   Total      Government          Private obligations


                      lending                  (Portfolio investments and                                 borrowings            (Portfolio investments and


                                                      Direct investments)                                                                              Direct investments)


3.5                 0                              3.5                                                          7.1          0.1                          7.0




Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver report that between 1870 and 1913 Britain’s foreign investment and long-term lending to the U.S. amounted to $3 billion. “But during the same period the U.S. made net payments of interests and dividends, mostly to Britain, amounting to $5.8 billion. The consequence was an increase of U.S. foreign debt from $200 million in 1843 to $3,700 million in 1914. Britain, in contrast, at the beginning of the First World War had nearly one-half of its assets overseas and received about 10 percent of its national income in the form of interest on foreign investment.[21]


In other words, the United States was at the eve of World War One a net capital importer, not a net capital exporter. It paid net dividends and interests to Britain. In terms of capital export, the contrast between the U.S. and Britain could hardly be bigger. However, both – the U.S. as well as Britain – were imperialist Great Powers. This is an example for the uneven development between the imperialist powers. Nevertheless, Lenin characterized not only Britain but also Germany and the U.S. as imperialists.


Another telling statistic has been provided by David Landes in his famous study on capitalism The Unbound Prometheus. The following Table 20 demonstrates the different relevance of capital export for such leading imperialist powers like Britain and Germany. While Britain’s foreign investment represented nearly 52% of its total net capital formation, it was only less than 6% in the case of Germany. In other words, German capital not only played a much smaller role than Britain on the world market, capital export was also much less important for Germany.


Table 20. Germany and United Kingdom: Foreign Investment as Percentage of Total Net Capital Formation (at current prices) [22]


                Germany                                                                              United Kingdom


1851/5-1861/5                     2.2%                                                       1855-64                 29.1%


1861/5-1871/5                     12.9%                                                    1865-74                 40.1%


1871/5-1881/5                     14.1%                                                    1875-84                 28.9%


1881/5-1891/5                     19.9%                                                    1885-94                 51.2%


1891/5-1901/5                     9.7%                                                       1895-1904            20.7%


1901/5-1911/13                  5.7%                                                       1905-14                 51.9%




Another example for the uneven development among different imperialist Great Powers can be seen in Table 21. Comparing the net foreign assets in 1914 of Britain, Germany and the U.S. in relation to their economic output, we see massive differences in the role of capital export for these Great Powers. In the case of Britain, foreign investment clearly played a most prominent role. However, in Germany’s case, capital export, as a share to its output, was only ¼ of Britain’s. And if we take the U.S. the gap is even larger. Here we see, as other tables above already indicated, that the U.S. actually was not even a net capital export at all but rather a net capital importer.


Table 21. Net Foreign Assets in 1914 (% of GDP) [23]


United Kingdom                               153%


Germany                                              36%


USA                                                       -9%




Again, we repeat, that such unevenness did not stop Lenin from characterizing all these Great Powers as imperialist.


Unevenness remained a central feature among the imperialist powers in the period between the two World Wars. Germany, having lost World War One, possessed no longer any colonies. Likewise, we see massive differences when looking at the role of capital export in the economy of various imperialist powers on the eve of World War II. As Table 22 shows Britain was still dominant with a share of 39.4% of the global foreign investment. In contrast, France’s share was only 8.8%. And Germany’s capital export volume was less than 4% of that of Britain in 1938. Similarly, Japan’s foreign investment was only 7.1% of that of the US. To conclude, we see large disparity in capital export between the imperialist powers in the 1930s. However, this huge gap did not cause Marxists to deny the imperialist nature of all these powers!




Table 22. Gross Nominal Value of Capital Invested Abroad in 1938 (in millions of $US at current exchange rates) [24]


                                                      Europe                   Western                Latin                      Asia       Africa                    Total


                                                                                      Offshoots             America


United Kingdom                      1.139                      6.562                      3.888                      3.169      1.848                      17.335


France                                         1.035                      582                         292                         906         1.044                      3.859


Germany                                    274                         130                         132                         140                                      676


Netherlands                              1.643                      1.016                      145                         1.998      16                           4.818


Other*                                          1.803                      1.143                      820                         101         646                         4.579


United States                             2.386                      4.454                      3.496                      997         158                         11.491


Japan                                           53                           48                           1                              1.128                                   1.230


Total                                            8.331                      13.935                   8.774                      8.439      3.712                      43.988


* Other include 19 European countries




Globalization and Great Power Rivalry in the Period before World War One




We have noted above that the historic period most similar to the present one is the era before World War One. Obviously, it would go beyond the scope of this work to analyze the period before World War I. [25] However, it is useful to draw attention to several similarities.


Similar to the U.S. in recent decades, Britain was before World War I by far the most mature capitalist country as reflected in its dominant role in the world’s stock of foreign investment. The late Eric Hobsbawn, one of the finest Marxist historian in the Post-World War period, concurrently pointed out: “In 1914 France, Germany, the USA, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the rest between them had 56 per cent of the world's overseas investments; Britain alone had 44 per cent. In 1914 the British steamer fleet alone was 12 per cent larger than all the merchant fleets of all the other European states put together.[26]


However, Britain’s power was already in decline as new rivals were emerging – first and foremost Germany and the U.S. Nevertheless, the gap between these powers in terms of capital export was still huge. Today China plays a similar role as a challenger.


One could argue that the close economic relations – called globalization today (or “hyperglobalization” to borrow a phrase from UNCTAD [27]) – would be an obstacle for an outburst of open rivalry between the Great Powers. However, as we have pointed out in the past, history proves otherwise. In fact Britain and Germany, two major rivals in World War I, had close economic relations before 1914. [28] In Table 23 we see that Britain was Germany’s most important trade partner before 1914 while Germany was nearly as important as France for Britain’s trade.




Table 23. Main Trade Partners of Britain and Germany, 1890-1913 (Average % Share) [29]


Britain                                                                                  Germany


1. U.S.: 19.47%                                                                    1. Britain: 13.85%


2. France: 8.99%                                                                 2. U.S.: 11.03%


3. Germany: 8.90%                                                            3. Austria-Hungary: 10.15 %




However, as Marxists have pointed out repeatedly, such close economic relations not only create closer bonds between the monopoly capitalists, they also accelerate the rivalry between them. This was demonstrated powerful with the long-standing rivalry between Britain and Germany which resulted in the outbreak of hostilities between them in 1914.


Another parallel is the increase of protectionism in the years before the First World War. With the exception of the strongest imperialist power Britain, all other imperialist states did impose tariffs on commodity imports – again a similar development to the beginning Global Trade War which we are currently experiencing. (See Table 24)




Table 24. Average level of tariff in Europe 1914 (in %) [30]


United Kingdom                               0                                              Austria-Hungary, Italy                    18


Netherlands                                        4                                              France, Sweden                                  20


Switzerland, Belgium                      9                                              Russia                                                   38


Germany                                              13                                           Spain                                                     41


Denmark                                              14                                           USA (1913)                                          30




Let us conclude by remarking that such unevenness between the imperialist powers continued to exist after World War II. While the U.S: become the absolute hegemonic power, Britain’s and France’s status was in rapid decline as reflected in the loss of their colonial Empires or the botched attempt to stop Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. Germany and Japan, as defeated imperialist powers, were able to rebuild their economy but remained military subordinated to Washington.




The “Fat” and the “Lean” Cows




There is also another aspect where it is worth drawing parallels with earlier developments in history. The Second World War where essentially a confrontation between old, long-standing Great Powers which dominated the world order and new, emerging Great Powers which challenged this order and which were determined to get their imperialist share of the cake. The old imperialist powers – Britain and France – were richer and could afford some kind of bourgeois democratic system. The new imperialist powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – were not so rich. They had to centralize their economic resources and fully suppress political freedom.


Trotsky wrote on this issue several times in his works in the 1930s. “The above-mentioned classification of states has its historical meaning, but not at all that which is indicated in cheap pacifist scribblings. The first to arrive at fascism or other forms of dictatorship were those countries whose internal contradictions had reached the greatest sharpness: countries without their own raw materials, without sufficient access to the world market (Germany, Italy, Japan); countries which suffered defeat in the last war (Germany, Hungary, Austria); finally, countries in which the crisis of the capitalist system is complicated by precapitalist survivals (Japan, Poland, Rumania, Hungary). All these historically backward or unfavored nations are naturally the least satisfied with the political map of our planet. Their foreign policies have, therefore, a more aggressive character than those of the privileged countries, which are concerned above all with the preservation of the loot they have already acquired. Hence arises the very conditional division of states into partisans and adversaries of the status quo, the fascist and semifascist countries being, for the most part, in the latter alignment. But that does not at all mean that precisely these two camps will fight each other.” [31]


Trotsky once called the old power “fat cows” and the emerging powers “lean cows” which, consequently, had different relationships with the social-imperialist parties. “Just as the capitalist world is divided into the fat cows of imperialist democracies and the lean and greedy cows of the fascist dictatorships, so the Second International has broken up into a “satiated” group who still remain shareholders in their national imperialist enterprises and a group of lean cows driven from the national pastures by fascism.[32]


There exists a certain similarity to the situation today. The old Great Powers – the U.S., the EU and Japan – are defenders of the existing world order. These “fat cows” can afford a certain degree of bourgeois democratic rights in their countries. The emerging Great Powers – China and Russia – are not so rich. They have substantial lower labor productivity than the old imperialist rivals. These “lean cows” aggressively challenge the existing order as this is the only way to become “fat”. In order to achieve this, the bourgeoisie of these states is ruling via authoritarian regimes with little (Russia) or no (China) democratic rights at home.


[1] See on this e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South (Chapter 8 and 14); Michael Pröbsting: Marxism and the United Front Tactic Today. The Struggle for Proletarian Hegemony in the Liberation Movement in Semi-Colonial and Imperialist Countries in the present Period, RCIT Books, Vienna 2016, pp. 43-51,

[2] Despite some limitations, Ernest Mandel’s book on World War II remains an excellent overview of this issue: Ernest Mandel: The Meaning of the Second World War, Verso, London 1986

[3] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, New York 1992

[4] David S. Landes: The Unbound Prometheus. Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1969, p. 231

[5] See Neta C. Crawford: Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency, November 2018, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at the Brown University

[6] For a more substantive elaboration of our view on this issue see Michael Pröbsting: Capitalism Today and the Law of Uneven Development: The Marxist Tradition and its Application in the Present Historic Period, in: Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Volume 44, Issue 4, (2016),

[7] Leon Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution (1930), Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008, p. 5

[8] Leon Trotsky: The Third International After Lenin (1928), Pathfinder Press, New York 1970, p.19. Later, by the way, Trotsky explained that the law of uneven development is also relevant to understanding the contradictory developments in nature, human consciousness, etc. (See on this Philip Pomper (Editor): Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, Columbia University Press, New York 1986)

[9] Leon Trotsky: The Third International After Lenin (1928), Pathfinder Press, New York 1970, pp.19-20

[10] Leon Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution (1930), Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008, p. 4

[11] Leon Trotsky: The Third International After Lenin (1928), Pathfinder Press, New York 1970, pp.14-15

[12] V.I. Lenin: On the Slogan for a United States of Europe (1915), in: LCW 21, p. 342

[13] V.I. Lenin: Imperialism, The Highest Stage Of Capitalism (1916), in: LCW 22, p. 295

[14] See for this various works listed in the special sub-section on our website:; In particular we refer readers to our pamphlet Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and the Rise of Russia as a Great Power.

[15] Angus Maddison: The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Vol. 1, 2001, pp. 183-185 and 213-215. The figures are calculated in 1990 international U.S. Dollars.

[16] François Crouzet: A History of the European Economy, 1000–2000, University Press of Virginia, 2001, p. 148

[17] V. I. Lenin: Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) ; in: LCW Vol. 22, p. 274

[18] The column with the figures for industrial production and world trade are taken from Jürgen Kuczynski: Studien zur Geschichte der Weltwirtschaft, Berlin 1952, p. 35 and p. 43. The column with the figures for overseas investment trade is taken from Paul Bairoch and Richard Kozul-Wright: Globalization Myths: Some Historical Reflections on Integration, Industrialization and Growth in the World Economy, UNCTAD Discussion Papers No. 113, 1996, p. 12. (For non-German readers we add that the late Jürgen Kuczynski was a famous German economy historian in the Stalinist tradition, who wrote numerous books about the history of capitalism and the working class. He was a kind of German version of Eric Hobsbawn.)

[19] Dirk Willem te Velde: Foreign Direct Investment and Development. A historical perspective, 30 January 2006, Background paper for ‘World Economic and Social Survey for 2006’, Overseas Development Institute, p. 6.

[20] Mira Wilkins: The History of Foreign Investment in the United States, 1914–1945, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004, p. 64

[21] Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver: Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1999, pp. 132-133

[22] David S. Landes: The Unbound Prometheus. Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1969, p. 331

[23] Moritz Schularick: A Tale of two ‘Globalizations’: Capital Flows from Rich to Poor in Two Eras of Global Finance, in: International Journal of Finance and Economics 11 (2006), p. 350

[24] Angus Maddison: The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Vol. 1, 2001, p. 101

[25] There exists a myriad of literature about World War One. See e.g. James Joll: The Origins of the First World War, Longman, New York 1984; Gerd Hardach: First World War, 1914-1918, Penguin Books, New York 1987; John Godfrey: Capitalism at War: Industrial Policy and Bureaucracy in France, 1914-1918, Berg Publishers, Leamington Spa 1987; Fritz Klein (Ed.): Deutschland im ersten Weltkrieg, Vol. 1-3, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1968.

[26] E. J. Hobsbawm: The Age of Empire, Vintage Books, New York 1989, p.51

[27] See UNCTAD: World Investment Report 2018

[28] See on this e.g. Helga Nussbaum: Der europäische Wirtschaftsraum. Verflechtung, Angleichung, Diskrepanz, in: Fritz Klein / Karl Otmar von Aretin (Eds): Europea um 1900, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1989, p. 49

[29] Stefano Battilossi: The Determinants of Multinational Banking during the First Globalization, 1870-1914, Working Papers 114, Oesterreichische Nationalbank (Austrian Central Bank), 2006, p. 40

[30] E. J. Hobsbawm: The Age of Empire, Vintage Books, New York 1989, p.39

[31] Leon Trotsky: On the Threshold of a New World War (1937); in: Trotsky Writings 1936-37, p. 384

[32] Leon Trotsky: Progressive Paralysis. The Second International on the Eve of the New War (1939), in: Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40, p. 36