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Why Lenin's analysis remains relevant for activists today
What is imperialism?

October 10, 2003 | Page 8

THE MARXIST approach to understanding war as a product of economic rivalries spilling over into political and military conflicts has long been dismissed as out of date, even by some people on the left. But the military occupation and corporate takeover of Iraq has put this view back at the center of discussion. SHAUN HARKIN explains why the Russian revolutionary Lenin and the theory that Lenin developed about the rise of imperialism--remains so relevant today.

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LENIN WROTE his influential pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916, during the carnage of the First World War. Sometimes, imperialism is defined very broadly to mean the domination of weaker states by stronger ones. But empire building, colonialism and military competition have existed ever since states have existed.

By contrast, Lenin's definition of imperialism was historically specific. For Lenin, imperialism was distinct because it represented--and was the product of--a new stage in the development of capitalism.

The internal composition of capitalism had changed dramatically in the years around the turn of the last century. Responding to competition and economic crisis, capitalism in the U.S., Germany, Britain, Japan and France tended to become more concentrated and dominated by massive monopolies.

Lenin documented how smaller companies--the kind of privately owned firms that Karl Marx wrote about in his analysis of capitalism--were replaced by corporations dominating whole markets. Wealth, capital and power rested in fewer and fewer hands.

"If it was necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism," Lenin wrote. So as competition on the national level was reduced through mergers, bankruptcies and the tendency toward monopoly, it became increasingly ferocious internationally. Business required the organized power and resources of the state to secure their interests.

Securing markets, territories and investment outlets for their corporations meant that governments of the most powerful countries were forced to spend more heavily on their militaries. A state's ability to protect its national interests depended on the strength of its military and navy--which depended on its level of industrial development.

Thus, the interests of corporations and the state became increasingly tied together. As Bukharin, Lenin's collaborator, characterized the process: "The development of world capitalism...leads to an internationalization of economic life, while the same process of economic development intensifies the tendency to 'nationalize' capitalist interests, to form narrow 'national' groups armed to the teeth and ready to hurl themselves at one another at any moment."

As Lenin explained, "Capitalism's transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism, to finance capital, is connected with the intensification of the struggle for the partitioning of the world." Thus, the age of monopoly capitalism accompanied the new scramble for colonies and empire around the world.

In 1876, Africans controlled 90 percent of African territory. By 1900, Europeans controlled 90 percent of African territory. Lenin described the phenomenon this way: "The characteristic feature of this period is the final partition of the globe--not in the sense that a new partition is impossible...but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time, the world is completely shared out, so that in the future only re-division is possible."

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LENIN'S THEORY captured a world economic, financial and military system where imperial powers competed to dominate the globe and carve it up among themselves. The big powers sent their armies around the globe--not only to conquer less powerful nations, but also to fight over the division of the world among themselves.

In this way, peaceful economic competition pursued through political and diplomatic means gives way to military competition and war. Lenin called this process of economic and military competition between the great powers--and the domination of less developed countries resulting from it--imperialism.

"Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of 'advanced' countries," wrote Lenin. "And this 'booty' is shared between two or three powerful world marauders, armed to the teeth--America, Great Britain and Japan, who involve the whole world in their war over the sharing of their booty."

Lenin concluded that the scramble for empires and the clash between the great powers in the First World War was a direct result--and the only possible outcome--of the development of capitalism.

Lenin's approach was at odds with the argument put forward by Karl Kautsky, an important socialist leader before the First World War. Kautsky argued that the war could have been avoided--and future wars could be prevented--by the capitalists themselves.

"There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the possible exception of certain armaments interests," Kautsky argued. "On the contrary, the capitalist economy is threatened precisely by these disputes. Every farsighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries, unite!"

Kautsky believed that imperialist war was the product of a bad policy choice made by a tiny section of the capitalist class.

Not surprisingly, Lenin didn't look to the world's robber barons to fix the system. He argued that the world's ruling classes--the "hostile band of brothers," as Marx referred to them--would shake hands when possible, but go to war when necessary.

The trajectory of capitalist development meant that war would become a more central and unavoidable feature of the world system.

Therefore, Lenin argued, only an international socialist revolution could end the barbarism that capitalist competition had unleashed.

"The imperialist war is ushering in the era of social revolution," wrote Lenin. "All the objective conditions of recent times have put the proletariat's revolutionary mass struggle on the order of the day."

The most important task for socialists, he concluded, was to "develop the workers' revolutionary consciousness, rally them in the international revolutionary struggle, promote and encourage any revolutionary action, and do everything possible to turn the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against the oppressors, a war for the expropriation of the class of capitalists, for the conquest of political power by the proletariat, and the realization of socialism."

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LENIN'S APPROACH to the struggle of people in parts of the world being colonized by the great powers was qualitatively different from most other socialists before the war. In the rush to build empires, the great powers were stamping on and crushing the world's population under their imperial heel.

Domination and occupation caused immense misery, which in turn gave rise to intense hatred of the foreign occupiers and sparked national aspirations and revolts--for example, by the Irish and Indians against the British colonizers. Lenin was at odds with some other leading socialists who believed that these nationalist revolts created an obstacle to socialist revolution.

Instead, Lenin grasped how these rebellions, though dominated by nationalist ideas, had a democratic content and could strike a blow against the imperialist system as a whole. "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without the revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outburst by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices...is to repudiate social revolution," Lenin wrote. "So one army lines up in one place and says, 'We are for socialism,' and another somewhere else says 'We are for imperialism.' And that will be the social revolution! Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it."

Supporting the right to self-determination for people in oppressed nations was absolutely crucial because it meant that workers in the imperialist countries would have to break ideologically with their own ruling classes. Without this, real international solidarity among the exploited and oppressed of all countries would be impossible. For these reasons, Lenin argued that workers in imperialist countries must form alliances with the national liberation movements in the colonies to oppose imperialism.

The dynamics of imperialism that Lenin analyzed are still present. His approach continues to offer the best framework to understand imperialism--and is an essential tool for revolutionaries today.

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