Lenin’s 'Imperialism': understanding reality in order to transform it

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 left Lenin practically isolated politically, and in exile with very few contacts with the party in Russia. The Second International had solemnly voted at several congresses to oppose the imperialist war, and in the case of its outbreak to use all means at their disposal to accelerate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Instead, all the major parties collapsed into social-chauvinism, each defending the interests of their own ruling class in the war.

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This came as a big shock, including to Lenin, who initially thought that the issue of the German Social Democratic paper Vorwärts which announced support for the war credits was a forgery of the German army’s general staff. Only a small minority of internationalists remained firmly opposed to the imperialist massacre.

It is in that context that Lenin wrote his famous work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Having fled Austrian-occupied Galicia for neutral Switzerland, he started a battle for an internationalist position against the war. He conducted correspondence with anti-war socialists, analysed the resistance developing against the betrayal of the Second International, and fought to fertilise it with a clear uncompromising revolutionary Marxist position. It was not an easy battle, but ultimately it was one which was crowned with success, and through the socialist conferences at Zimmerwald and Kienthal, eventually led to the formation of the Third (Communist) International in 1919, after the victory of the Russian Revolution.

And yet, at the same time as Lenin was engaged in this struggle against the stream, he went back to theory, to sharpen his understanding of Marxism and the Marxist understanding of imperialism, which had led to the war.

The role of theory

Immediately after his in-depth study on Hegel, Lenin moved on to the question of the nature of imperialism / Image: public domain

It might come as a surprise to some that one of the first things he did when he arrived in Bern was to spend long hours in the library… studying Hegel! His work is contained in eight Notebooks on Philosophy, which he wrote between 1914 and 1916, comprising over 300 pages. Already in 1902, Lenin had famously declared that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”, and that included a serious understanding of the dialectical logic of Marxism.

Immediately after his in-depth study on Hegel, Lenin moved on to the question of the nature of imperialism. Again, he approached the question in a scientific way. Marxism is not a set of formulae, which can be mechanically applied to reality, but rather, Marxism starts out with an in-depth and many-sided study of the facts at hand, their inner connection and contradictions, and their evolution over time. From all this, it derives generalisations, which then need to be checked once more against reality.

This is precisely how Lenin proceeded in studying what, at that time, was a relatively new phenomenon. Now in Zurich, he started by amassing a mountain of facts and figures covering every different aspect of the capitalist economy in its imperialist epoch. He also read and studied the most important works that had been written about the subject, both from a capitalist point of view as well as from a Marxist or socialist perspective.

For instance, he conducted a detailed study of Imperialism by John Atkinson Hobson, written in 1902. He also read and commented on Hilferding’s book Finance Capital, written in 1912. Hilferding was a prominent German Social Democrat and certainly not a Marxist, but his book played a positive role in Lenin’s study of imperialism.

Lenin’s Notebooks on Imperialism, the preparatory work for the book, span over 800 pages, and is contained in Volume 39 of his Collected Works. According to the Progress Publisher’s preface, they “contain extracts from 148 books (106 in German, 23 in French, 17 in English and two translations into Russian), and 232 articles (of which 206 in German, 13 in French and 13 in English) from 49 periodicals (34 German, 7 French and 8 English).” These figures alone should indicate the seriousness with which Lenin approached the study of this crucial subject.

The full title of Lenin’s work is Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism – a Popular Outline, and it was written in the first half of 1916. The book was aimed for legal publication in Russia, as he wanted to give his work the biggest audience possible, but as Lenin explains in his preface to the first edition:

“I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language—in that accursed Aesopian language—to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a “legal” work.”

As well as skirting around the political questions, he also had to be careful about what he said regarding Russia itself. In the same preface he explains that “the careful reader will easily substitute Russia for Japan, and Finland, Poland, Courland, the Ukraine, Khiva, Bokhara, Estonia or other regions peopled by non-Great Russians, for Korea.”

In the book, Lenin proceeds from the concrete to the general, describing how the development of capitalism, which was originally based on free trade, gave rise to monopoly; how monopolies came to dominate the whole economy; how these merged with the banks and the state; and finally, how it is these economic factors that underpin the aggressive annexationist tendencies of imperialism.

The capitalist imperialism which Lenin describes is therefore different from previous forms of ‘imperialism’ and also from Kautsky’s conception of imperialism as just a mere aggressive foreign policy.

What is imperialism?

Readers should study the book in detail, but here we can jump ahead to Lenin’s conclusion. What is the definition of imperialism he arrives at? First he warns that definitions per se are limited, and that one should not forget “the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development”. Having said that, he then proceeds to describe the five basic features of imperialism:

“(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.” (my emphasis)

Imperialism inevitably leads to war for redivision, as the relative balance of power between the imperialist countries inevitably changes / Image: public domain

From this description of imperialism, which involves also the domination of the colonies and the division of the world amongst a handful of imperialist powers, the conclusion also flows that imperialism inevitably leads to war for redivision, as the relative balance of power between the imperialist countries inevitably changes.

The book is also a polemic against the ideas of Kautsky, who had been one of the main theoreticians of the Second International but failed to oppose the war. Kautsky argued that the concentration and monopolisation of capital and the tendency for these cartels to become international would lead to a peaceful domination of the world in what he described as “ultra-imperialism”. Lenin rejects this idea, which he tackled head on:

“(…) the only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc., is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc. And the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. (…) Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics.” (my emphasis)

It is worth noting that Lenin did not conceive imperialism as something static and fixed forever, but rather as the result of the dynamic struggle between different imperialist powers for the division and redivision of the world among themselves. The rise and fall of different powers was precisely the cause of the First World War:

“Half a century ago Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with that of the Britain of that time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it “conceivable” that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged?”

Lenin also explains that in the epoch of imperialism, capitalist development takes place in an extremely uneven way and therefore there are still important differences amongst the main powers:

“(…) and among the six countries mentioned we see, firstly, young capitalist countries (America, Germany, Japan) whose progress has been extraordinarily rapid; secondly, countries with an old capitalist development (France and Great Britain), whose progress lately has been much slower than that of the previously mentioned countries, and thirdly, a country most backward economically (Russia), where modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.”

Lenin is careful in describing how there are all sorts of transitional forms between the big powers and the colonies. He describes small states which have their own colonies (at the time, Belgium, Holland, etc); semi-colonial countries, that is, countries which are politically independent, but nevertheless still dominated by finance capital from the main powers. There are even other types of countries like Portugal, which have their own colonies and are politically independent, but are effectively protectorates of one of the big imperialist powers, in this case Britain.

As Lenin pointed out, the political aspects of the question are underdeveloped in a text that was written with an eye on the tsarist censor. These are mainly two.

The first one is the fact that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, when it has reached the limits of its own development and becomes parasitical, decaying and moribund. This does not preclude the growth of capitalism, says Lenin, but it means that this is more uneven, creates further contradictions, and leads to the “decay of the countries which are richest in capital”. This means that imperialism, with its strong elements of fusion between finance capital and the state, and the internationalisation of trusts and cartels, betrays a strong tendency towards the socialisation and planning of production, which can only be fulfilled through socialist revolution. As Lenin says “imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat.”

The second is the connection which exists between imperialism and the rise of opportunism in the labour movement. This is hinted at in the text, but spelled out clearly in the 1920 preface to the French and German editions. Lenin explains that out of the super-profits which the imperialist powers squeeze from their colonies “it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy.” He describes this layer as “real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”. It was this layer of social-democratic leaders, politicians, members of parliament, etc. that backed their own imperialist ruling class in the First World War.

Enduring relevance

Finally, it is worth asking whether Lenin’s analysis of imperialism has stood the test of time? This is an open and shut case. The features that Lenin described in analysing imperialism over 100 years ago are today more in evidence than then. In every sector of the economy (food and beverages, media, steel, oil and gas, electric vehicles, solar panels, logistics, aerospace, weapons, textiles) a handful of powerful multinationals dominate the world. In turn, these are all enmeshed in a network of shareholdings and investments ruled by powerful investment funds, banks and insurance companies – that is, by finance capital. All of them, multinational giants and finance capital, are closely linked to the capitalist state of the main imperialist countries.

The world today, as it was in Lenin’s time, is witnessing the struggle between different imperialist powers – an old, decaying one, the US; and a young, dynamic, rising one, China – for the domination of the world. This is a struggle for the control of markets, fields of investment, sources of raw materials and energy which is being waged across the world. This struggle inevitably leads to wars. There is a difference with Lenin’s time: the existence of nuclear weapons precludes an all out world war. Nevertheless, the conflict between the powers expresses itself in countless conflicts, trade wars, sanctions and also regional wars, in which tens of thousands are killed and millions displaced.

In order to analyse imperialism today, its underlying tendencies and contradictions, we must adopt the same serious, scientific, Marxist approach as Lenin. We must start with a detailed and thorough study of the facts in order to draw general conclusions. In doing so, Lenin’s book and his method will be an invaluable tool. The only possible conclusion we can arrive at is that the features which Lenin described have become even more extreme today.

As in Lenin’s time, the aim of studying imperialism today is to draw the necessary revolutionary conclusions. Imperialism is moribund, decaying capitalism. It is the cause of predatory wars and must be overthrown through socialist revolution, the conditions for which have been ripe for over a century now.

Next week

The betrayal of the working class by the leaders of the Socialist International in August 1914 left the advanced workers shellshocked. A general mood of national chauvinism swept the belligerent nations. But the reality of the war soon led to a sobering up. Bitter anger at the ruling classes that had plunged Europe into this slaughter mounted in the trenches, factories and desolate homes of the workers and peasants. Wartime curtailment of democratic rights kept this anger bottled up beneath the surface, but it inevitably exploded.

In January 1917, Lenin remained in Switzerland, where, delivering a lecture on the 1905 Revolution to a group of Swiss socialist youth, he told them:

“We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the confident hope that the youth which is working so splendidly in the socialist movement of Switzerland, and of the whole world, will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.”

Mere weeks later, Tsar Nicholas II was deposed and Russia was in the throes of revolution. Capitalism had broken at its weakest link. Yet Lenin remained far from the action. Whilst desperately trying to return, he followed events as closely as he could and sent letter after letter (the famous Letters from Afar) to the leading Bolsheviks in the Russian interior, urging them to adopt the perspective that the revolution could only be victorious if the workers seized power.

Finally, in April, Lenin arrived in Petrograd, and set to work. His first task: politically rearming the Bolshevik Party, to which end he wrote his celebrated April Theses, which we will take up next week in our series, Lenin in a Year.

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