This essay will discuss the effects of recent economic trends on the unity of the imperialist bloc and on the autonomy of its constituent elements—the individal nations. footnote1 Three broad possibilities may be distinguished:

US super-imperialism in which all other capitalist states are dominated by the United States and have comparatively little freedom to choose their policies and control their economies in ways opposed by the American state. America acts as the organizer of world capitalism, preserving its unity in the face of socialism. This domination may not, of course, operate smoothly—for antagonisms will not be eliminated but merely contained.

Ultra-imperialism in which a dominant coalition of relatively autonomous imperialist states performs the organizing role necessary to preserve the unity of the system. For this to work the antagonisms between the members of the coalition must not be so severe that they overcome the interest they have in maintaining the coalition.

Imperial Rivalry in which the relatively autonomous states no longer perform the necessary organizing role, or perform it so badly that serious conflicts break out between them and the unity of the system is threatened. For this to happen the antagonisms between states must be severe.

Recent Marxist writers have been divided in their views on which of these three variants of imperialism is most likely. The majority, amongst whom are to be found Sweezy, Magdoff, Jalée and Nicolaus, believe that the United States is not only the dominant imperial power today, but that it will become increasingly dominant in the future. footnote2 Their argument runs, with variations, roughly as follows. American firms are much bigger, more advanced and faster growing than their foreign rivals. They are using this strength to take over key sectors of European industry, and are using American state power to force their way into Japan. Eventually American firms will dominate the economies of Europe and Japan, and, as a result, large sections of the national bourgeoisies of these countries will be denationalized, becoming objectively—if not subjectively—representatives of American capital. Moreover, European and Japanese capital surviving this process will be weak and completely subordinate to American capital. Even today, they argue, a coalition of dominant American and subordinate foreign capital is creating a unified imperialism under the hegemony of the United States and the contradictions between national capitalisms are becoming of increasingly little significance. The significant contradiction is more and more between a unified imperialism and the ‘third world.’ These writers have been criticized, in my opinion fairly, as ‘third-worldists’ by Ernest Mandel. For convenience I shall also use this term.

On the opposite side stand Mandel and perhaps Kidron, who believe that the hegemony of the United States is being challenged by the Europeans and the Japanese. footnote3 Mandel argues as follows. A combination of mergers, accumulation and rationalization is destroying the size advantage of American firms, and as a result non-American productivity levels are catching up with those of the Americans. The formation of a supranational state in Europe would speed up this process considerably, but even in the absence of such a state the Europeans are closing the gap. Since non-American wages are much lower than American wages, increases in productivity could make goods produced in Europe and Japan so cheap that exports from these countries could flood American markets, creating severe contradictions within that country as American capitalists try to hold down wages in an attempt to stem this flood. Moreover, American penetration of Europe or Japan has by no means reached the point where the bourgeoisies of these countries have been denationalized. National states still defend the interests of national capital. Neither Europe nor Japan are anywhere near to being neo-colonies. As the struggle for world markets intensifies there will be increasing conflict between nation states as they attempt to defend their respective firms. In particular, the non-Americans will come into conflict with the Americans. Indeed the European states may even form an alliance or perhaps a supranational state to enable them to stand up to the Americans on equal or near equal terms. Internally, within the non-American nations, contradictions will become increasingly severe as states try to hold down wages to enable their firms to compete more effectively. Thus Mandel’s view is of an imperialism increasingly wracked by internal contradictions, although he does not believe these will be severe enough to break out into wars. The need to defend the system as a whole will be too great to allow this to happen.

Somewhere in between these two poles hovers the Soviet economist Varga who, appealing to the law of unequal development, argues that European and Japanese capital will break the hegemony of American capital, and that the United States will be forced to share its leadership of the imperialist world. footnote4 Antagonisms beween national capitals, however, will be of comparatively little importance in determining the future of the imperialist system. They will be adequately, if not smoothly, contained by the rapidly proliferating supra-national institutions, whose aim is both to resolve the economic antagonisms between national capitals and to preserve the unity of imperialism against the challenge posed to it by the revolutionary movements of the third world. Apart from his notion that the leadership of imperialism will be shared by a number of states, Varga’s ultra-imperialism does not differ greatly in content from the super-imperialism of the third-worldists.