Rosa Luxemburg’s Imperialism: Links to Marxism and Applications

Introduction: With the passage of time, the word ‘imperialism’ and it’s meaning has evolved. The literature available on imperialism indicates that in order to understand the meaning of the imperialism, it is necessary to take into consideration the cultural context. For example, the German meaning attached to imperialism is significantly different from its British meaning. (Winslow, 1931)

In the modern-day, imperialism carries with itself, a connotation that must be understood as a part of and as different from the imperialism of older times. Aijaz Ahmad’s ‘Imperialism of our time’  talks about how imperialism now needs to be understood as a conjuncture of complex discontinuities and continuities of events. It states that the changing structure of global capitalism leads to re-invention of imperialism. (Ahmad, 2004)

Amongst the various theories that can be used to understand this age-old process of imperialism, the most widely acknowledged, in terms of its influence and precedence is the Marxian theory of imperialism. (Winslow, 1931)

In this paper I will look at the broad theories of Marxian Imperialism and specifically focus on Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism, tracing its links to Marxism through analysis and reflection.

Marxist Theory of Imperialism

Followers of Marx propose different outlooks towards imperialism with the precursory of capitalism being constant in each. The idea at the core of the Marxian theory of imperialism states that the presence of material and economic conditions is necessary for the emanation of all political phenomenon. As a result, it claims that imperialism is an inevitable consequence of the economic processes of production and exchange, further suggesting that only the advent of a socialist society can lead to the disappearance of imperialism. Although there is no single Marxian theory of imperialism, the common ground for all Marxian interpreters is that ‘modern’ imperialism stems from capitalism. (Winslow, 1931)

Since Karl Marx never outwardly stated his theory of imperialism, there is a visible lack of unity among the neo-Marxist imperialism writers. The closest that Marx himself has ever come to the theory of imperialism is by gauging at his outlook towards colonialism and its relationship with pre-capitalist days that bred the ground for modern-day capitalism. (Winslow, 1931)

According to a paper released by the University of Michigan Press, the Marxian theories of imperialism can be categorized into three types. The first type is of theories which state that imperialism is being experienced in the present or will be experienced in the future. The second type is of theories that consider imperialism to be atavistic in nature and claim that imperialism will fade away with the course of time. The third type is of theories that consider imperialism to be perennial in nature. (Marxist Theory of Imperialism, 1954)

Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism

Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism fits into the second category which talks about imperialism fading away as time progresses. Her thesis on imperialism was based on the assumption that imperialism consists of the penetration and expansion of capitalism into non-capitalistic or purely agrarian regions for the sole purpose of surplus production and for reclaiming the consequent surplus value which allows it to exist on its own. In order to understand her theory of imperialism, it is essential to note how she explains the growth of capitalism and then draws linkages with imperialism to explain the same. (Winslow, 1931)

We can understand Luxemburg’s theory in two parts, the first part is that capitalism requires acquisition of certain non-capitalist regions. She draws this idea from Marx’s doctrine which states that during the infancy stages of capitalism, the expansion of foreign trade becomes the basis and in later stages, capitalism becomes its own product. However, her ideas contradict Marx’s when he talks about the possibility of the capitalism being in its final/monopoly stage. She states that capitalism cannot be in its final stage if and when imperial expansion is taking place continuously. The basis of her theory is the very presence and usage of agrarian, non-capitalist regions and the resulting surplus value derived from them in order for the capitalist systems to thrive. This leads us to the second part of her theory wherein she states that no adequate market can sustain in a society that is exclusively composed of the labour class and the capitalist class. In a case where the labour gains the entire product of the industry, socialism will be borne to replace capitalism. (Winslow, 1931)

Her theory focuses on two aspects, these are overproduction and accumulation of capital which make us understand how imperialism becomes a consequence of capitalist progression and development.

The consequence of capitalism is overproduction that find its usage only in the regions external to capitalism itself. This aspect leads us to understand Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism and how it manifests in ground reality in the form of militarism, prominent role of monopolies and banks in the world politics and high level of protection, fundamentally comprising of competition between capitalist countries and their search for colonies and other areas of influence.

The Accumulation of Capital: Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism written by Luxemburg in 1913, can be used to understand the second aspect which is that of accumulation of capital. She observes that capitalists will only engage in the processes of production and investment if doing so ensures profit. Therefore, in order to accumulate capital, it is mandatory to have buyers outside the capitalist regions which is only plausible through imperialism and exploitation of pre-capitalist areas. (Winslow, 1931)

Luxemburg states that as this capitalism continues to grow and expand outwardly, it converts non-capitalist areas into capitalist areas, thereby imperialism follows the pattern of capitalism till it finally ends its sway. This implies that capitalist regions continue to grow with the help of non-capitalist regions until these non-capitalist regions are transformed into capitalist regions. This culminates into a revolution where the capitalist regime is overthrown to establish socialism. (Winslow, 1931)

Conclusion and Critique

Therefore, Rosa Luxemburg defined imperialism as the political expression of the accumulation and overproduction resulting from capitalism wherein these capitalist areas, in the last stage of capitalist development, compete for division and control of non-capitalist zones. (Winslow, 1931)

Throughout the course of her theory, she explains that capitalism cannot grow in isolation and how it needs to acquire non-capitalist regions which makes colonies necessary and imperialism consequential. (Winslow, 1931) Therefore, imperialism is linked to capitalism because the progression of capitalism implies acquiring of agrarian areas, that is, colonies and thus imperialism is promoted.

The primary difference between Marx and Luxemburg’s theory is the actor of capitalism. For Marx, the only actor of capitalism capable of generating value was the labour or proletariat class which was located within the capitalist system. However, for Luxemburg, this revolutionary actor was placed outside the capitalist system, inside the colonies. Therefore, she places a significant emphasis on the colonized masses and their role of not only maintaining capitalism but also possessing the capacity to overthrow it. (Trincado, 2010)

The biggest criticism of Luxemburg’s theory can be comprehended through the lens of dialectical materialism. Luxemburg believes that derivation of surplus will come from the predictable conditions of the economy and labour, however, she disregards the presence of uncertainties of the capitalist economy. She suggests a new path for capitalism based on an assumption that these uncertainties lacks permeance. This is considered to be the biggest drawback of her work since the deterministic time presented by dialectical materialism does not comprehend uncertainty. Soros stated that prices and output value in a capitalist economy depends on various inter-subjective subjective and reflexive values. As a result, the surplus values from non-capitalist regions cannot be ensured since a large number of determinants will shape the economic process of production, investment and consumption. (Trincado, 2010)

Another criticism given to her theory was presented in Otto Bauer’s theory of imperialism that concluded the possibility of capitalistic growth even in isolation, that is, without the presence of colonies, making the non-agrarian regions of relative and not absolute importance. He stated that capitalism employs internal and external expansion both, thereby, making external expansion through colonies a matter of choice and not a necessity. This point of view opposed Luxemburg’s since it viewed imperialism as a policy and a conscious decision. (Winslow, 1931)

Reflection and Analysis

Through the discussion in this paper, various conclusions can be drawn about Luxemburg’s and Marxian theories of imperialism and the applications of imperialism in today’s world.

When we look at the Marxist theory of imperialism, the foundation of this theory are the linkages drawn between the base and superstructure wherein the economic and material conditions are base, which drive, shape and mould the ideological and political expressions of imperialism. Therefore, capitalism adopts the role of the base and imperialism that of the superstructure.

Through the review of literature, we can also conclude that Luxemburg places a double role or, in a sense, two contradictory roles on the colonies or non-agrarian regions that are facing imperialism by stating that it is these colonies that contain within themselves the capacity to continue as well as overthrow the capitalist regime.

We can also observe that the foundation of Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism demands imperialism to be looked at as a whole and not as an isolated, individual part. She states that capitalism cannot grow in isolation, thus, it requires non-capitalist regions to progress, which makes imperialism plausible only when there is a presence and segregation of so-called First world capitalist countries and Third world, non-capitalist countries that are placed in a power hierarchy. In my opinion, this would also imply the existence of the reverse wherein imperialism would automatically lead to a power hierarchy and in some cases, strengthening of this hierarchy. Thereby making capitalism and imperialism the cause and effect of one another. Strengthening of capitalist control would lead to the accumulation of wealth and power which would in-turn strengthen imperialistic control and vice-versa.

Another observation can be made by looking at how the definition of imperialism itself has evolved. In a paper written in 1931, imperialism was defined as ‘initially characterized with a political or personal character, driven by military force, imperialism today is fundamentally economic in its purpose and origin, subsequently manifesting political and military conditions’ However, in the 21st century, the notion and essence of imperialism has spread to other domains such as that of thought, culture and creativity; ideas like cultural imperialism are emerging and expanding the scope and dominance of imperialistic powers. Today, imperialism is not just limited to economic power but also the power to control thought and culture. (Winslow, 1931)

The former observation can be supplemented Aijaz Ahmad’s text. He states that post second World War, America emerged as a leader of all capitalist countries and then set out to develop the richest and best funded academic establishment in the world’s history. This was augmented by them bringing “intellectual strata from the recently decolonized countries into their own academic institutions” Many of these individuals stayed back to contribute to the intellectual powerhouse of America and in the 1960s, a phenomenon of brain drain started emerging wherein intellectuals from Third world countries became increasingly attracted to America and its academia due to its superiority and scope. The establishment of English as a sort of world language also contributed to their dominance. In this way, American knowledge became the practical and ‘common sensical’ point of view. To exemplify, Latin American literature that arrives in India today, has been subjected to American annotation, translation and publication. Therefore, currently, the world is experiencing Americanization which is only seen as ideal and appropriate by those imitating American culture. (Ahmad, 2010)

Today, America has established its cultural imperialism on the entire world, especially in the global south, since these countries are primarily trying to imitate the American way of life, their lifestyle and values in order to ‘develop’ and become ‘modern.’ Moreover, we can also observe that American individuals in our country are not only considered superior but also treated superior as compared to other fellow Indians. An example of this could be looking at the Maharaja Express Railway started by the government with first-class facilities in order to ensure the comfortable travel of all foreigners travelling in Indian Railways. However, the facilities in many Indian rails is are below working conditions and many policies such as removing the reservation for disabled people in the railway compartment is exploitative and insensitive.

Even in Indian Academia, in the field of social sciences, where the knowledge and information is primarily subjective in nature, research and studies from the West are the primary source and reference. In most cases, studies done in America are used and applied to the Indian context without much understanding of the uniqueness of thought and social, political and economic realities of India.

This leads me to the observation that questions the relationship between imperialism and globalization. Promoted with the idea of free trade, globalization today not only refers to the exchange of goods and services but also the exchange of thoughts, ideas, cultures and practices all over the world. Therefore, one can question the possibility of imperialistic control over thoughts, creativity and academia being sold in the name of globalization. We cannot conclude whether globalization was started with the ulterior motive of building colonies, however, we can definitely understand the relationship between these two processes. We can question the possibility of Western thought being inculcated and embedded in our systems not only explicitly through Western superiority but also implicitly in the name of globalization

Lastly, after discussing the cultural imperialism of America, one can draw conclusions about how the process of consolidation of capital allows big companies and capitalists to consolidate ideology as well and emerge with one single thought and ideology. Therefore, the coming together of capitalists with one ideology increases not only the strength of the ideology in terms of its holders and how powerful they are individually but also the reach of the ideology in terms of its audience. One dominant thought then becomes easier to imitate and imbibe which becomes the basis of expansion of cultural imperialism.


Ahmad, A. (2004). Imperialism of our Time [Ebook] (pp. 44-62). Social Register.

Fourth Meeting: Marxist Theory of Imperialism, March 17, 1954. (2020). In McCourt D. (Ed.), American Power and International Theory at the Council on Foreign Relations, 1953-54 (pp. 140-168). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/mpub.11301034.8

Trincado, E. (2010). The Current Relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s Thought [Ebook] (pp. 142-156). Socialist Studies. Retrieved from

Winslow, E. (1931). Marxian, Liberal, and Sociological Theories of Imperialism. Journal of Political Economy, 39(6), 713-758. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from

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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.