[Sometimes without the hyphen.] The theory that capitalist-imperialism will, has, or at least might, develop into a stage where there is a single, unified imperialist system under the cooperative control of all the imperialist countries, and where there is no serious contention among these imperialist countries that can lead to inter-imperialist war. This theory was promoted by Karl Kautsky in the period which, ironically, led up to World War I—the first of the two disastrous inter-imperialist world wars of the 20th century. The theory was ferociously opposed by Lenin, who argued that the idea of ultra-imperialism was “ultra-nonsense” [LCW 22:271]. However, while Lenin was certainly correct to condemn the theory of ultra-imperialism at that time, and—moreover—the theory really is essentially both undialectical and ultimately downright wrong in general, there needs to be further discussion of the topic in light of the developments within world imperialism following World War II. (See next entry below.)
The idea of “ultra-imperialism” is connected to the more general revisionist notion that capitalism was developing into a less anarchic and more organized and stable form, both within individual countries and on a world scale. Supposedly this meant that capitalist economic crises would soon be a thing of the past, as would imperialist wars. Needless to say, this is not at all how things have worked out for capitalist-imperialism over the past century!
This picture of “organized capitalism” was especially promoted by the Austrian semi-Marxist economist, Rudolf Hilferding. There were inklings of this view in his famous 1910 book Finance Capital which were then elaborated by him in 1915. Part of the germ of the idea of both “organized capitalism” and “ultra-imperialism” lies in Hilferding’s notion of a universal or “general cartel”, a stable international cartel of capitalist companies which organizes the production and sale of more or less all commodities over the entire world. (Though, in that book, Hilferding says that such a universal cartel must soon collapse.) [See: Hilferding’s Finance Capital, English translation ed. by Tom Bottomore, 1981, pp. 234-5 & 296-7.] Soon after writing that book, however, Hilferding became convinced by his own flights of fancy that organized capitalism was in fact possible and developing. He generalized way too much on the situation in Germany and Europe before World War I, and grossly underestimated the contradictions between the imperialist powers that led to world war and to the breaking down of international cartels.
The roots of the notion of ultra-imperialism lie in Hilferding and other earlier revisionists. And, as Lenin points out [LCW 22:293-4] even the non-Marxist writer John Hobson broached the same idea, though he called it “inter-imperialism” rather than ultra-imperialism. However, Karl Kautsky was the individual who most directly promoted the theory. After arguing that imperialism is merely an optional “policy” that contemporary capitalists had adopted (and not at all something that was inherent to modern capitalism), he went on to say:
“From the purely economic standpoint it is therefore not excluded that
capitalism may yet experience a new phase, namely the transposition of the policy of the
cartels to the realm of foreign policy—in other words, a phase of ultra-imperialism,
which naturally we would have to combat as energetically as we combated imperialism, but
the danger of which would take a different form, not a world arms race and threat to world
—Karl Kautsky, “Wirkungen des Krieges” [“Results of the War”], Die Neue Zeit, XXXII, 1913-1914, vol. II, p. 921; English translation in: Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution: 1880-1938 (Verso: 1990), p. 189. [This article was written before the start of World War I, but revised slightly before publication after the start of that war.]
In 1915, nine months after writing the above, Kautsky recognized that for the present the world war was blocking the development of ultra-imperialism, but still hoped and supposed that it might yet develop after the end of the war:
“The retreat of the movement for protective tariffs in England, the reduction
of tariffs in America, the efforts at disarmament, the quick reduction of capital exports from
France and Germany in the last few years before the War, and finally the growing international
interpenetration of the various cliques of finance capital caused me to consider whether it
might not be possible for the present imperialist policy to be pushed aside by a new
ultra-imperialist one, which replaces the struggle of national finance capitals against each
other by the joint exploitation of the world through internationally allied finance capital.
Such a new phase of capitalism is, in any case, imaginable. The necessary preconditions are
still lacking to decide whether it is also realizable.... The present war ... can totally
stamp out the weak sprouts of ultra-imperialism by greatly increasing the national hatred
also of the finance capitalists, by spurring on the armaments race, by making a second world
war inevitable.... But the war can also ... strengthen the weak sprouts of ultra-imperialism....
Temporarily, ... ultra-imperialism could bring an era of new hope and expectations within
—Karl Kautsky, “Zwei Schriften”, Die Neue Zeit 33 (April 30, 1915), pp. 144-45. English translation in: John H. Kautsky [Karl’s grandson], Karl Kautsky: Marxism, Revolution & Democracy (1994), pp. 11-12. [Some of the sentences also appear, in slightly different translation, in LCW 22:293.]
Lenin ridiculed the theory of ultra-imperialism in a variety of ways: For example, in response to Kautsky’s remarks about looking at the issue from the purely economic standpoint, he wrote:
“If the purely economic point of view is meant to be a ‘pure’ abstraction,
then all that can be said reduces itself to the following proposition: development is
proceeding towards monopolies, hence, towards a single world monopoly, towards a single world
trust. This is indisputable, but it is also as completely meaningless as is the statement
that ‘development is proceeding’ towards the manufacture of foodstuffs in laboratories. In
this sense the ‘theory’ of ultra-imperialism is no less absurd than a ‘theory of
ultra-agriculture’ would be.
“If, however, we are discussing the ‘purely economic’ conditions of the epoch of finance capital as a historically concrete epoch which began at the turn of the twentieth century, then the best reply that one can make to the lifeless abstractions of ‘ultra-imperialism’ (which serve exclusively a most reactionary aim: that of diverting attention from the depth of existing antagonisms) is to contrast them with the concrete economic realities of the present-day world economy. Kautsky’s utterly meaningless talk about ultra-imperialism encourages, among other things, that profoundly mistaken idea which only brings grist to the mill to the apologists of imperialism, i.e., that the rule of finance capital lessens the unevenness and contradictions inherent in the world economy, whereas in reality it increases them.”
—Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, (January-June 1916), LCW 22:271-2.
Later in that same work Lenin says:
“[T]he only objective, i.e., real, social significance of Kautsky’s ‘theory’ is this: it is a most reactionary method of consoling the masses with hopes of permanent peace being possible under capitalism, by distracting their attention from the sharp antagonisms and acute problems of the present times, and directing it towards illusory prospects of an imaginary ‘ultra-imperialism’ of the future. Deception of the masses—that is all there is in Kautsky’s ‘Marxist’ theory.” —Lenin, ibid., LCW 22:294.
There is much additional criticism of Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism in
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and other works by Lenin. Nikolai
Bukharin also strongly criticized the theory of ultra-imperialism in Chapter 12 of his 1915
book Imperialism and World Economy, as did Lenin in the introduction to that work.
[Bukharin’s book with Lenin’s introduction is available at:
See also below, and: WORLD IMPERIALIST SYSTEM
Although the theory of ultra-imperialism was obviously totally ridiculous in Lenin’s era and at least until after World War II, what about all the major changes and developments in world imperialism which occured after that war? Didn’t the change from old-style colonial imperialism to the new neocolonialism and the advent of the present-day single World Imperialist System, with its major organizational agencies including the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, show that Kautsky was right after all, even if he was way too premature in his expectations in 1914?
There are those who claim so. The anti-communist intellectual, George Lichtheim, who nevertheless called himself a “socialist”, wrote that Kautsky’s “gloomy vision” of ultra-imperialism, “of a global cartel linking all the industrially advanced centers of the world ... first formulated in 1914 by the principal theorist of the Second International, looks remarkably modern today: more so than the productions of the rival Leninist school.” [Lichtheim, Imperialism (1971), p. 12.] Another writer claimed that “From a present-day perspective it seems that Kautsky was right: Capitalism has in fact survived two great wars and has reached the phase of ‘ultra-imperialism’.” [Narihiko Ito, “Karl Kautsky und Rosa Luxemburg,” in Jürgen Rojahn, et al., Marxismus und Demokratie: Karl Kautskys Bedeutung in der sozialistischen Arbeiterbewegung (1992), p. 161.]
What is missing here is a dialectical approach, a longer viewpoint and an ability to look at major social processes as they develop over a prolonged period. For the two or so decades before World War I it also looked to many that an international social stability had arrived and that wars, at least major wars between advanced countries, would no longer occur. Civilization had (supposedly) triumphed once and for all! And even to some on the Left, such as Hilferding and Kautsky, it looked as though the economic roots of inter-imperialist contention were rapidly disappearing, and they pointed to the rise of international cartels as “proof” of that. And yet World War I came along almost before they got these words out of their mouths, and those international cartels crumbled. The apparent and temporary stability and era of peace collapsed and turned into its opposite.
Yes, a cooperative organization of imperialist powers did start to come into existence at the end of World War II. At first it consisted only of the victorious imperialist powers in that war, dominated—of course—by the United States, but also including Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Canada and a few other advanced capitalist countries. But very soon the defeated Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) were also brought into it. Once capitalism was restored in the USSR, and for a period of 35 years, there were then two competing imperialist systems, the “West” and the social-imperialist Soviet Union and its sphere of control (the so-called “Socialist Bloc”). After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Russia and the other countries in the Soviet bloc also merged (with varying degrees of success) into what was then the single remaining imperialist system. After Mao’s death in 1976 China also took the fast road back to capitalism, and with its admission to the WTO in 2001, and its mushrooming export of capital thereafter, became a full participant in the World Imperialist System itself. [See: N.B. Turner, et al., Is China an Imperialist Country? Considerations and Evidence (2014), available online at: http://www.bannedthought.net/International/Red-Path/01/RP-8.5x11-IsChinaAnImperialistCountry-140320.pdf ]
So it is true that at least by the year 2001 (if not a decade earlier) there had arisen a single World Imperialist System which has operated in something like the way that Kautsky and the other proponents of the existence of ultra-imperialism envisioned. (One of the big differences from his conception, however, is the absence of any universal cartel in the contemporary world today, and its replacement by numerous multinational corporations generally headquartered in their own mother countries, along with the international imperialist regulatory agencies, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.)
If (contrary to the actual situation) this were a permanent new stage for world imperialism then we might indeed have to say that Kautsky was more or less right in the long run, even if his musings were grossly premature and served a reactionary purpose back in 1914. But in point of fact this period of unified and cooperative imperialist exploitation of the world is quite temporary and is already showing very serious signs of breaking down. In the decades since World War II U.S. imperialism has been slowly but steadily losing ground relative to the other imperialist countries. And the advent of China as a new and much more vibrant and rapidly growing capitalist-imperialist country has really thrown a monkey wrench into the existing mechanisms of world imperialism. Since the U.S. has refused to give up its dominance of the IMF, WB and WTO, China—with the support of growing numbers of other countries in the BRICS grouping and beyond—has been moving to establish alternative institutions which it and its partners, and especially Russia, dominate. We see before us in the world today the beginning split of the existing World Imperialist System into two hostile and competing imperialist blocs once again! And accompanying this split we see once again the rising potential for yet another inter-imperialist world war at some point in the not-so-distant future, or at the very least, a series of proxy wars between these two competing imperialist systems.
Of course there have been periods in the history of the development of capitalist-imperialism in which growing cooperation among the imperialist powers appears as not only the dominant but also the permanent trend. These periods are often referred to as eras of growing globalization. One such period was the several decades before World War I, which Lenin was well aware of and which so misled Hilferding and Kautsky. Lenin knew from the start that this period of globalization and apparently developing “ultra-imperialism” was a mirage. The second great era of globalization and of apparently developing “ultra-imperialism” has been in the last few decades and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But close observers are already recognizing this as a mirage as well, since it is already in the process of breaking down once again, as the world enters a new period of intensified economic crisis and growing inter-imperialist antagonisms.
Mere interludes of inter-imperialist cooperation, globalization and peace do not change the essential nature of capitalist-imperialism and definitely do not change the essential dangerous nature of the beast.
Thus, in the final analysis, the claim that the period since the establishment of a single “unified” World Imperialist System in 1991 constitutes a genuine new “ultra-imperialist” stage of capitalism is a completely erroneous misreading of contemporary social reality. It is erroneous because that present very temporary existence of just a single World Imperialist System cannot possibly continue for long.
“Let us assume that all the imperialist countries conclude an
alliance for the ‘peaceful’ division of these parts of Asia [China, India and Indo-China];
this alliance would be an alliance of ‘internationally united finance capital.’ There are
actual examples of alliances of this kind in the history of the twentieth century, for
instance, the attitude of the powers to China. We ask, is it ‘conceivable,’ ... that such
alliances would be more than temporary, that they would eliminate friction, conflicts and
struggle in every possible form?
“It is sufficient to state this question clearly to make it impossible for any reply to be given other than in the negative; for any other basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, of interests, of colonies, etc., than a calculation of the strength of the participants in the division, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc., is inconceivable. 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, as far as her capitalist strength was concerned, compared with the strength of England at that time; Japan was the same compared with Russia. Is it ‘conceivable’ that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? Absolutely inconceivable.
“Therefore, in the realities of the capitalist system, and not in the banal philistine fantasies of ... the German ‘Marxist,’ Kautsky, ‘inter-imperialist’ or ‘ultra-imperialist’ alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce' in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, giving rise to alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle out of one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics.”
—Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, (January-June 1916), (Peking: FLP, 1975), pp. 143-5; and in a slightly different translation in LCW 22:295. [Lenin is being proven correct on this important point, even after the transformation of old-style colonial imperialism into neocolonialism and the temporary development of a single World Imperialist System over the past few decades. It is precisely the uneven development of capitalism following the overthrow of socialism in China which has now led to the rise of Chinese imperialism (in alliance with Russia and other powers) as a major challenger to the supposed peaceful era of “ultra-imperialism” under the leadership of the United States. —Ed.]
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