The ‘short’ twentieth century is often held to have begun with the First World War, and ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. But there is another way of looking at the last hundred years or so, that would see its principal story as the continuous growth of an American empire that not only overtook its English predecessor, but also contributed in no small way to the erasure of the Soviet experiment. Such a perspective is not altogether novel—after all, belief in the ‘American century’ was common among Cold War liberals even when the ussr seemed at the peak of its power. Since the end of the Cold War, however, it has not only gained momentum within the establishment, but its shadow can be discerned across the entire intellectual spectrum, from Left to Right. Intellectually and politically speaking, it is the juggernaut of American imperialism, not the lost promise of socialism, that commands attention today.

Unsurprisingly, Marxists have been especially active in this development. Indeed, between works already published and those under way, we may be seeing the most fertile spurt of thinking about imperialism on the Left since the 1970s, even if much of it is written by veterans of that period. Perhaps we are witnessing a turning point in Marxist theory. For while the revival in theories of imperialism during the 1970s was the occasion for a rediscovery of Lenin, Luxemburg, Bukharin and other thinkers of the Third International, much of the current body of work is moving toward a rejection, or at any rate drastic modification, of leading elements of their legacy.

Empire of Capital is a lively example of such iconoclasm. The ideas of Lenin, Luxemburg and others of their generation, Ellen Wood contends, were crafted for a world in which capitalism was not yet a global reality. Their theories assumed the existence of large pre-capitalist regions on which imperial powers could prey, whose continuing presence led them to underestimate or overlook novel features of Western imperialism, and to highlight instead aspects that would soon fall into desuetude. Colonial rule was already waning in the inter-war period. Inter-imperialist rivalry for the control of pre-capitalist regions would become much more muted after the Second World War. Moreover the founders and heirs of the Third International did not imagine there would be a need to revise their assumptions, since they confidently expected the downfall of capitalism before it spread across the globe. Hence, Wood suggests, while the classical theories may have had some relevance to the world of the early twentieth century, they are manifestly insufficient in a time when capitalism has spread victoriously to almost every corner of the globe. Contemporary imperialism no longer rests on direct colonial rule. It has become a much less transparent system, for the most part relying on the use of indirect political mechanisms and superior economic throw-weight. In this, Wood argues, modern imperialism has finally come to reflect the social relations that are at the core of capitalism. For the modern decoupling of social exploitation from territorial control at the international level mirrors the separation of the economy from the polity at the domestic level that defines capitalism as a mode of production.

The heart of Wood’s argument is that the parallel between the two is no accident. Imperialism is, in the final analysis, a system of surplus extraction, albeit across national or cultural borders. It cannot, therefore, be left unaffected as the system of property relations changes, and so too the attendant strategies of exploitation. Despite the fact that much of Europe was capitalist by the nineteenth century, its colonies were not. Surplus extraction in those regions by the imperial powers had, then, to resort to extra-economic coercion and direct political control. But once exploitation took capitalist forms, imperial objectives could be reconciled with formal independence for erstwhile colonies, where direct coercion was no longer required. In many ways, it was in fact more efficient to cede nominal independence to such territories, since firms could then concentrate on the business of profit-making, without assuming the costs of maintaining a viable subject state. As capitalism matured, the comparative advantage of this course displaced older, more overtly colonial strategies. Thus just as capitalists at home learnt that they could cede control of the state apparatus to a corps of professional politicians and bureaucrats, so they saw the sense in abandoning annexations abroad. The mark of a fully capitalist imperialism is that it is the first system in which economic power can, and increasingly does, extend beyond the bounds of direct political control.

Wood’s argument raises two immediate difficulties. Why did it take so long for the capitalist powers to dispense with earlier, more direct forms of imperial domination? And what role is left for the state to play in contemporary forms of imperialism, once it ceases to be the instrument ensuring the extraction of profits from the dominated regions—should we expect a steady decline in its relevance? Wood spends the better part of her book describing a variety of pre-capitalist empires, so as to contrast them with their modern descendant. Here she builds on her own work, which for more than two decades has focused on the historical specificity of capitalism, and its implications for forms of political power and philosophical thought. All previous empires, she argues, came in two basic varieties. Their dynamics rested either on the seizure of land or the control of trade, in each case realized by violence. Wood lays out this taxonomy with admirable clarity and concision, without losing sight of significant differences within each group. Thus while both Roman and Chinese empires were creatures of military conquest, relations between their rulers and aristocracies differed sharply. The dependence of the Chinese empire on peasant taxation ensnared the monarch in a delicate balance with local power-holders, on whom he had to rely for the extraction of the surplus, while simultaneously inhibiting their self-aggrandizement. The Roman emperors, on the other hand, were not only willing to accept a stronger aristocracy, they often actively fostered its growth. The reason, Wood suggests, is that while Rome was always a territorial empire, for much of its lifespan it did not depend so heavily on agricultural taxation as a source of revenue, relying instead on slave labour, and using its army to siphon wealth from conquered lands. But that system presupposed a steady addition of new territories to the empire. Once this ceased, the dynamics of the Roman state increasingly resembled those of other land empires, and a process of involution and disintegration set in.

For Wood, the commercial empires of the medieval and early modern eras—Islamic in the Middle East, Venetian and Dutch in Europe—comprise a conceptual midpoint between territorial and capitalist imperialism. In relying on revenue from trade more than taxation on land, and so fuelling circuits of exchange, they represented in one sense a step toward a more capitalist form of imperialism. Still, this remained limited. Commercial empires did not reflect the interests of an incipient bourgeoisie, but of the great merchant houses of a pre-capitalist world. Such mercantile strata were no less reliant on political patronage and the use of force than were feudal lordships. Lacking effective control of the production process, the ability of merchants of this kind to increase their revenue stream depended on the manipulation or control of markets in which they could forcibly lower their purchasing prices, or artificially raise their selling prices. Empires of commerce no more decoupled economic and political coercion than did empires of land. Wood’s succinct comparative survey of these pre-capitalist structures, drawing on a lifetime’s study of the ancient and early modern world, is masterly.

But these matters are essentially a prelude to her principal argument, which concerns the character of a specifically capitalist imperialism. If the commonality of all pre-modern empires lay in their dependence on military conquest, Wood’s contention is that with the advent of capitalism in England, this began to change. For the historically novel forms of surplus-extraction in England generated pressures for a new type of imperialism too, which did not require the traditional kind of annexations. But here she has to confront an awkward fact. While capitalism was well entrenched in England by the late seventeenth century, British territorial conquests continued apace for another three hundred years and Britain did not give up its colonies for almost another century after that. It cannot even be said that the direction of change moved steadily away from military conquest. If anything, colonial expansion accelerated even as capitalist development was gathering steam. The seizure of India began with the conquest of Bengal in 1757, and continued under the East India Company for more than five decades. Once the Company was displaced by the British state, expansion continued, if more slowly, especially into Northwest India. This was soon followed by the scramble for Africa, and penetration of the Middle East. If capitalism is supposed to unleash forces that undermine antediluvian forms of empire, this hardly counts as supporting evidence.