The world ‘imperialism’ holds a special place in Marxist rhetoric.
Alongside ‘revisionist’, ‘Trotskyist’ and various terms denoting bourgeois status, it is a favourite insult of many (particularly Maoists), and has been such ever since it was first theorised by Lenin as the ‘Highest Stage of Capitalism’. Yet, whilst popular, it seems that its meaning is not always clear. For example, many socialists would criticise the practices of both Julius Caesar and George W. Bush as ‘imperialist’, yet their actions were very different, and it’s as though this difference is often glossed over.
This can be seen in Mao’s Theory of Three Worlds, which groups the USA and the USSR as imperialist countries, Europe, Japan and Canada as ‘smaller’ imperialist nations, and Asia, Africa and Latin America as the victims of imperialism. Yet the way in which the USA exerts dominance over these parts of the world isn’t explained, for, the days of empire now gone, it’s clear that such exploitation is predominantly economic only, and perhaps neo-colonialism would be a more accurate description. This is something that I feel is often ignored; when Lenin wrote about imperialism’s role in the development of capitalism, he spoke of the British, German and Portuguese empires, yet here, Mao refers largely to the corporate exploitation of the developing world.
Something else left unexplained here is the distinction between western imperialism and that of the Soviet Union, which, unlike the west, did not profit through neo-colonialism. Here, the term refers to the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe or Afghanistan through military and diplomatic, as opposed to economic control. Thus, though these two forms of domination differ starkly, they are grouped under the same banner.
To clarify the distinction, I believe these two different varieties of imperialism need stating; economic, and military/political imperialism. Often there is overlap, such as the forceful domination Britain exerted over India for its own economic interests, or perhaps the Second Iraq War, arguably driven by similar interests, yet the differences are clear, despite how often they’re ignored.