Lenin on Imperialism

“Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism” by V I Lenin

Writing this in 1916 in Switzerland, Lenin used a style in this work that would enable the Tsarist censor to permit it to be published in Russia. He would use, say, Japan as an example, hoping that the reader would simply substitute Russia and see that the critique held up. Of course he could not speak of his opposition to the First World War as being all about the pursuit of plunder. But, looking back in a later preface, it seems clear to him that this was so and to explain his view of the origins of that war is his underlying purpose.

 
Why is it that elements of the workers’ movement were sucked in to support the war and became super-aggressive towards Marxists? In a nutshell, the combatant countries only represented a tenth of the world’s population yet absorbed a hugely disproportionate share of resources and this allows for “bribery” of a compliant “labour aristocracy”, who do not take kindly to be told the truth.
 
Lenin had poured over the massive literature on this subject that had sought to understand the rapid carving up of the world into gigantic empires in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Why had this happened? The most obvious underlying fact was the massive drive to monopoly production that preceded it. In the US, this concentration saw half of all production carried out by a mere 1% of the total number of enterprises. This was a relatively new but irresistible phenomena, predicted by Marx but once thought `unnatural’ by others.   Marx and Lenin knew that it was not only inevitable, some use could come from it. For: “Competition becomes transformed into monopoly. The result is immense progress in the socialization of production.” Which is a transitional stage of some interest to socialists, for “monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system.”
 
It seems obvious that monopolies would seek to dominate the origins of scarce resources. But they are not so strong as to be able to permanently fend of economic crises. New shifts in technological solutions may well generate new monopolists. Banks are central to all this, they have grown from “humble middlemen” to monopolies in themselves. Even in Lenin’s time, they are examples of a stunning concentration of capital. This `socialisation’, or “common bookkeeping” has seen the domination of stock exchanges by what we would call `institutional investors’.  
 
Lenin runs through the range of dodgy ways that capitalism had begun to run its system that we are all too familiar with now. Spread shareholdings to control companies with minimum expenditure, internal transfer pricing to shift resources around tightly controlled but seemingly separate subsidiaries, monopoly pricing and so on. These minute details were more for the Russian censor than for our education. However, in describing the way finance capital works, Lenin was pointing to the importance of the export of capital in binding the system internationally.
 
No longer was imperialism necessarily about the export or import of goods. The uneven development of the world now resulted in the accumulation of enormous sums of capital in the developed world. This would never be used to raise the standards of life of their own people. Capitalists sought lands where “capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap”. A table of the growth of the export of capital from Britain, France and Germany reveals the staggering growth of this practice in the half century up to 1914. But the dominance of particular national brands of finance capital also led to the “actual division of the world”.
 
Forget the fashionable cry of globalisation. “Capitalism long ago created a world market.” The “supermonopolies” (we would call them transnational corporations) divide the world up amongst themselves. Just replace the names of oil companies and countries mentioned by Lenin with modern equivalents and you could be talking about the early 21st not the early 20th century. The big change is to substitute the USA for Britain as the single most significant world power.
 
Relations grow up between monopolies and states for the “struggle for economic territory”. The export of capital extracted from domestic labour to other markets is one of the few outlets for capitalism to boost profits. (The others are to exploit labour more ruthlessly or more thoroughly.) This then took the form of carving up the globe and allocating colonies or territorial control. Possession of a country guarantees control over resources and raw materials.
 
Imperialism reaches out to all territories, seeking their re-allocation and division. Attempts by apologists to argue that this isn’t really the motive, because the normal course of trade would source the required products in any case, completely missed the point about monopoly. Anyhow, Imperialism not only annexes countries, it also so penetrated the economies of others that they were effectively a “semi-colony”. You even get the situation where a small imperialist power founds itself a junior partner in crime. As in Russia’s relationship to France in Lenin’s day, or Britain’s to the US in ours.
 
Imperialism is “the highest stage of capitalism” not merely its latest stage and its “characteristic feature imperialism is … finance capital.” It is not merely one form of capitalism it is capitalism.
 
You can’t explain the bloodiness of it away. The theory of “ultra-imperialism”, that all rival capitalisms would eventually subjugate their rivalries into one and peace would reign, is ludicrous. It arises from a misconception that finance capital lessens contradictions, when in fact it exacerbates them. Indeed, monopoly produces a tendency to economic stagnation, “parasitism and decay”. Whilst the piling up of wealth in developed areas of the world on the one hand, with the attractions of capital injection in areas starved of finance on the other is a perfect recipe for endless war.
 
As always, Lenin displays remarkable foresight. He tells us that we will see the development of ever more debtor states (now we call these the developing world) with a handful of creditor states (now the Group of 8 economically powerful nations) ruling the roost. Moreover, the far-off notion of a United States of Europe (a utopian alternative to war back then) would emphasis the parasitic role of finance capital and be aimed at reducing the role of what is now the developing world in world development.
 
 

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