The article by Karl Kautsky printed below is a singular text. It is well-known that Kautsky evolved a theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, a supreme phase of capitalist development which would banish all inter-imperialist wars forever, because Lenin denounced this conception in his own work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). What is not widely known is the extraordinary fact that Kautsky arrived at this theory in the months immediately preceding the First World War. A reading of his article ‘Der Imperialismus’, published in Die Neue Zeit on September 11th 1914, makes it clear that Kautsky was confidently predicting the impossibility of the gigantic conflict in the very weeks in which it was to erupt. His essay was, indeed, designed to provide strategic perspectives for the Congress of the Second International in Paris scheduled for August 1914. Never has a deviation from Marxism been so instantly and overwhelmingly exposed by history. Yet Kautsky blandly went forward with the publication of the article, after the war had started, with a few ‘additions’ to ‘take account’ of an event whose possibility its purpose was to deny. In fact, he only inserted a convoluted attempt to show that Austria, while imperialist in its designs on Serbia, nevertheless endangered its own national existence by doing so, and was therefore not guilty of mere imperialism in declaring war on it! The interest of Kautsky’s article, however, paradoxically lies in its modernity. He begins by sketching a history of the transition from free-trade Manchester capitalism to the competitive imperialism of the late 19th century, stressing the necessity of agrarian zones for capital accumulation in the industrial metropoles (the influence of Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism is evident here). He then goes on, however, to advance two essential reasons for the future evolution of conflictual imperialism into peacefully integrated ultra-imperialism. These are, firstly the threat to capitalism from the national liberation movements of Asia and the Arab World, which would oblige the imperialist powers to close their ranks against the common enemy; and secondly, the economic burden of the arms race on the State budgets of the imperialist powers.

It is striking that the first of these arguments, the threat of colonial revolutions, is precisely what is today the most frequently adduced reason for doubting the existence of serious inter-imperialist contradictions in ‘a new historical epoch’. It will seem from Kautsky’s text that this argument in itself is not particularly new. It is, of course, true that the existence of the Communist world and the upsurge of the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America have undoubtedly had a powerfully centripetal effect on the relations between the imperialist countries since the Second World War, rendering the contradictions between them secondary for some decades now. But there is no reason to believe that they have either disappeared altogether or that they could not become primary contradictions once again in a new historical conjuncture (the possibility of a war even between Russia and China, two non-capitalist countries, should be a sobering a fortiori reminder of this). While us paramountcy within the capitalist world clearly produced a provisional Gleichschaltung in the ’forties and ’fifties, with the rise of Western Europe and Japan there is considerable economic and political evidence to suggest that the re-emergence of a more classical polycentric imperialism is wholly within the bounds of possibility, and might occur sooner than expected.

Kautsky’s second argument, that the arms race would prove to be a burden to the economies of the imperialist powers, has been disconfirmed even more patently than the first. In fact, the opposite was to prove to be case: the arms economy helped to save world capitalism when the Great Depression finally struck it in the ’thirties. It has played a central stabilizing role in the economic structure of imperialism to this day. Recent predictions of its inherent declining utility to the us and Western European economies (because of capital-intensive technology) have not been hitherto verified. Only the heroic war of liberation of the Vietnamese has made it for the first time a serious burden in the usa; even this result of the Vietnamese Revolution has, however, been of less importance than its political impact within the domestic American class struggle. To read Kautsky’s text, long buried in the archives, today is to be reminded vividly of the enduring survival and efficacy of what Marx called one of the most fundamental of all the characteristic of the capitalist mode of production: its ‘international anarchy’ or endemic intercontinental contradictions.


The article below is the last section of ‘Der Imperialismus’, Die Neue Zeit, Year 32, Vol. II, No. 21, Sept. 11th, 1914.