Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Phil Gasper introduces a classic pamphlet that explains how capitalism was transformed by spreading international conflicts.

LENIN WROTE Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916 in the middle of the carnage of the First World War.

The pamphlet was an intervention in the sharp political debate that had torn apart the international socialist movement at the start of the war, with nearly every socialist party in Europe backing its own government in the conflict.

When war was declared in 1914, socialists in the German parliament voted unanimously to fund it, arguing that they had to defend civilization against the despotism of the Russian Tsar. Meanwhile, French socialists said they had to defend revolutionary France against Prussian militarism, and so on, across the board.

Lenin's Bolshevik Party in Russia was one of the few socialist organizations that maintained principled opposition to its own government. Lenin argued that the war was an imperialist conflict in which all sides were trying to grab more territory and extend their power and influence--or at the very least hang on to territories to which they had no right in the first place.

Lenin's main goal in Imperialism was to show how the colonial expansion and imperialist rivalry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were rooted in profound changes in the nature of capitalism during the same period. That's why he called imperialism at the beginning of the 20th century a stage of capitalism.

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LENIN DID not claim that there was no imperialism before the late 19th century. As he explicitly noted, "Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism." But, Lenin added:

"general" arguments about imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background the fundamental difference of social-economic systems, inevitably degenerate into absolutely empty banalities, or into grandiloquent comparisons like "Greater Rome and Greater Britain."

Even the colonial policy of capitalism in its previous stages is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.

What Lenin was attempting to explain was the extremely virulent form of imperialism that began to emerge in the late 19th century, resulting in the scramble for Africa from the 1880s, and the increasing tensions between the major powers that eventually led to world war.

In calling it a stage of capitalism, Lenin was saying that the new imperialism was fundamentally an economic phenomenon.

According to Lenin, an adequate definition of modern imperialism needs to embrace "five essential features":

1) The concentration of production and capital developed to such a high stage that it 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, which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities.

4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies, which share the world among themselves.

5) The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed.

Lenin's list has to be treated with a little care, since in retrospect some of the features are more fundamental than others. For example, the integration of industrial and banking capital was certainly an important aspect of German capitalism in the early 20th century, but far less developed in countries such as Britain.

Nor was it true that all the major capitalist powers had become net exporters of capital--more investment was still flowing into the U.S. and Japan, when Lenin was writing, for example, than was going out.

But Lenin himself was clear that the most important feature of imperialism was the first one that he listed. "If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism," he wrote, "we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism."

Lenin's argument was that the rivalries and wars between capitalist powers were inherent in one of capitalism's basic features: the tendency for capital to become more centralized and concentrated--in other words, for the dominant capitalist firms to acquire monopoly or near monopoly status in particular sectors of their national economy.

Lenin wrote Imperialism, which he described as a "popular outline," after reading--and writing an introduction to--Nikolai Bukharin's Imperialism and World Economy, and it is clear that he had Bukharin's account of the underlying dynamic of imperialism in mind while writing his own pamphlet.

According to Bukharin, imperialism is the result of two conflicting tendencies in modern capitalism.

Competition tends to give rise to the concentration and centralization of capital, and as this process develops, the state comes to play an increasingly active role in managing the economy. Bukharin argued that there is, in fact, a tendency for capital and the state to merge together on the national level to form what he called "state capitalist trusts."

But at the same time, there is a tendency for production, trade and investment to break out of national boundaries and to become organized on a global scale.

Bukharin argued that as a consequence of these two contradictory processes, economic competition between capitals increasingly tends to take on the form of geopolitical competition. In other words, economic competition comes to be expressed in terms of political and military rivalries between states for territory, influence and power.

In a candid private comment, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson confirmed the Lenin-Bukharin analysis:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.

Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.

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ONE OF Lenin's main targets was the German Marxist Karl Kautsky, who argued that because the world economy was becoming internationally integrated, war had become irrational from the point of view of the capitalist class.

According to Kautsky, "the World War between the great imperialist powers may result in a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race." Kautsky called this anticipated phase "ultra-imperialism," and he saw the formation of the League of Nations at the end of the war as part of the shift to ultra-imperialism and a more peaceful world order.

But the League of Nations--which Lenin called a "thieves' kitchen"--was never able to paper over the sharp differences between the major imperialist powers. Within a generation, the world was engulfed an even more barbaric war, and Kautsky's vision of a relatively peaceful capitalism was revealed to be an illusion.

By contrast, Lenin's theory does a remarkably good job of explaining the development of capitalism in the first half of the 20th century, and why the major capitalist powers plunged the globe into two catastrophic and barbaric world wars.

After the Second World War, the structure of global politics changed dramatically. Before the war, the world was economically and politically multi-polar. After the war, it remained economically multi-polar, but became politically bipolar--with the formation of two rival global military alliances, one dominated by the U.S., the other by the USSR.

Wars continued on the periphery, and the superpowers engaged in a massive arms race, but there was no war between the major powers, because the threat of nuclear escalation made them more cautious.

But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s, the structure of the global system changed again. The U.S. emerged as the world's only superpower, increasingly prepared to use its massive military superiority to maintain its position of global dominance and to prevent the emergence of serious rivals anywhere in the world.

But in the wake of the Bush administration's disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, intelligence analysts are now concerned that U.S. hegemony is in decline.

A report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council last month warns that the U.S. faces growing economic competition from rising powers such as China, India and Brazil, and that the next 20 years will be "fraught with risks," including heightened potential for conflict over scarce resources in a more multi-polar world.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the international capitalist system is increasingly operating in accordance with the logic of imperialist rivalry that Lenin first described nearly a hundred years ago.