First published in 1917, Lenin’s “Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, his major theoretical work, shows imperialism as a “direct continuation of the fundamental properties of capitalism,” a primary manifestation of capitalism in its late stages.
Returning to Lenin’s definition, we may add that imperialism reflects the same crisis of capitalism, in which it finds itself today: Lenin insists on the significance of the competition among capitalist nations, one against the other, (in a way foreseeing World Wars I and II), while capitalism itself schemes to meet the continuing and the growing demand for new sources of raw materials, new markets, cheap labor, and new avenues for the investment of surplus capital through imperialism. Lenin labels this period “the monopoly stage of capitalism.”
In essence, he considers this development inevitable: imperialism is inherent in the very workings of developed capitalism.
Thus, for Lenin, “capitalism became capitalist imperialism at a very high stage of its development when some of its attributes began to be transformed into their opposites, when the features of a period of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system began to reveal themselves all along the line.” He is referring to the contradictory process of the substitution of capitalist monopolies for capitalist free competition, the latter being the fundamental attribute of capitalism and commodity production. Our contemporary generation has experienced and continues to experience that transition, visible before us in our daily lives, as it accelerates.
The monopoly, Lenin refers to, is of course the precise opposite of free competition. We have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries the creation of large-scale industry and the elimination of small-scale industry, the process leading then to still “larger-scale industry”, leading to such a concentration of production and capital that monopoly results: Lenin’s “cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them the capital of a dozen or so banks.” At the same time, Lenin notes, although monopoly has emerged from free competition, monopoly does not eliminate the latter, “thereby creating a number of acute, intense antagonisms, friction and conflicts.” Thus, Lenin concludes that “monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system: the monopoly stage of capitalism, or, imperialism.” And thus, from the above, his conclusion that “imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.”
“The division of such a world is the transition from a colonialism extended without hindrance to (“small and feeble”, he wrote elsewhere) territories unoccupied by any capitalist power to a colonialist policy of monopolistic possession of the territory of the world which has been divided up (among capitalist imperialist powers.”
However, dissatisfied with this too brief definition of imperialism, Lenin, the “bulldog” as his wife Nadezhda called him, expanded the first definition of imperialism into five essential features:
- The concentration of production and capital developed to such a degree that it created monopolies, which play a decisive role in economic life.
- The merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation—and the basis of this “finance capital”—of a financial oligarchy. (Another of Lenin’s words so fashionable today.)
- The export of capital, which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities.
- The formation of international capitalist monopolies, which share the world among themselves.
- The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed. (Very contemporary thought, except that he did not and could not foresee the degree of ambitious greed of the USA, which would want it all for themselves.)
Therefore, “imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital have established themselves;… in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun.”
Lenin however was not satisfied with this purely economic explanation of imperialism and intends to zero in on the relation between capitalism and the workers movement in other works. But unable to let go the economic aspects of imperialism for the moment he directs his theoretical and dialectical genius to the theories of the German Marxist, Karl Kautsky, who in 1915 attacked the fundamental aspects of Lenin’s definition of imperialism. For example, Kautsky insisted that imperialism was not a “stage” or a “phase” of economy, but a “policy” preferred by finance capital and that imperialism cannot be identified with contemporary capitalism. Lenin instead found Kautsky’s (and that of other German Marxists in general) definition of imperialism as “worthless”: because of its insistence on the national question in that every major capitalist nation strives to simply bring under its control, or to “annex,” big agrarian regions. Imperialism seen as annexation is very incomplete, for politically, imperialism is, in general, a striving toward violence and reaction. (Lenin, we recall, is the bulldog dialectician! For Lenin, in general, the “characteristic feature of imperialism is not industrial capital, but finance capital. The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agricultural regions, but even highly industrialized regions (as in WWI, German’s desire for Belgium and France’s desire for the Lorraine.)” Why? Because since capitalists have already divided up the world, they have to grab for any territory because an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry among capitalist nations for hegemony, also in order to weaken competitors. Such as today: the USA wants to bring to heel Iraq and Syria and Iran in order to weaken Russia.
Lenin quotes from Imperialism (1902) by John A. Hopson to substantiate his point:
New imperialism differs from the older, first, in substituting for the ambition of a single growing empire the theory and practice of competing empires, each motivated by similar lusts of political aggrandizement and commercial gain; secondly, in the dominance of the financial or investing over mercantile interests.
Lenin’s point is that development of such economic views leads to concentration of the world of imperialism and superimperialism, a capitalist world in a phase in which wars may cease, a phase of the joint exploitation of the world by internationally combined finance capital. For Lenin, this is a departure from Marxism. Such super-or ultraimperialism theories are reactionary in that they serve to distract attention from the depth of existing antagonisms.
After first pointing out the major areas of developed capitalism in Europe, the British Empire and the American area, Lenin indicates two areas where capitalism is not developed: Russia and Eastern Asia and other vast areas with a great diversity of economic and political conditions and an extreme disparity in the rate of development. Lenin concluded that such fables as peaceful ultraimperialism as utterly worthless, reactionary nonsense.
Thus, Lenin concludes, finance capital, as we see today in the year 2016, has increased and continues to increase the differences in the rate of development (in fact, finance capital halts development) of the various parts of the world economy. So, how else, under capitalism, Lenin asks can the solution of contradictions be found, except by resorting to violence?
Crossposted at The Greanville Post
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.
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