CR81 Feature Article:100 Years of Lenin's Imperialism"
By Andrew Murray
The 100th anniversary of the writing – but not the publication – of Lenin’s Imperialism is an opportunity for a two-fold reflection – on Leninism, and on the capitalist world economy (or imperialism itself).
No political work stands outside its context, and this is particularly true of the writings of Lenin. There is scarcely a significant work amongst his writings which was not immediately directed towards a political objective. While Marx and Engels, in most of their major writings, and above all in Capital, could be said to be working for the general ideological edification of the developing working-class movement, to signposting its future, Lenin regarded this work as in the main accomplished by his great teachers.
Lenin never saw his mission as being deliberately refining – let alone revising – Marxism, but applying its principles to the political situation he was fighting in. His goal was proletarian revolution, an event he expected to live to see, and there is nothing he wrote or did which was not directly and often quite immediately connected to that end.
There used to be a standard refrain in parts of the world communist movement that “Leninism was Marxism applied to Russian conditions.” This could be an arguably justifiable position if we considered only Lenin’s work prior to the First World War, when his aim undoubtedly was to introduce the general positions of the Second International into Russia insofar as the conditions of Tsarism allowed. But if Lenin’s work had ended in 1914 we would not speak of Leninism today anyway. Thereafter, and this of course is the period in which Imperialism was written, he was consciously charting a way forward for the international working-class movement as a whole, in ways which still resonate to this day.
Imperialism is, alongside Left-Wing Communism and State and Revolution, the most widely-read and celebrated of Lenin’s works. This article aims, firstly, to set it in the context of Lenin’s objectives at the time he wrote it; second, to locate it in the analysis of imperialism then current in the workers’ movement; and thirdly, to look at the relevance of its propositions today and finally to assess contemporary imperialism.
It is widely acknowledged that August 1914 was a point of inflexion, a turning point, in Lenin’s thinking and his political orientation. Prior to the outbreak of war, and I admit that this polarisation is a schematic one, he had been first of all the leader of the Russian Social Democrats, or a faction among them, seeking the best way to apply the experience of international, and above all German, socialism to the very different conditions of Tsarist Russia. Thereafter, driven both by the collapse of the Second International and his sense of the immediacy of socialist revolution, he began to apply himself to fashioning a new outlook for world socialism – he emerged as an international leader, in fact.
Imperialism was written not only amidst a slaughter of dimensions that still retains its power to horrify but amidst the still-potent reverberations of the collapse of international socialism occasioned by the outbreak of war. There is no doubt that the alignment of the German SPD in the war and, above all, the position taken by Karl Kautsky, the greatest theoretician of the Second International, had the most profound effect on Lenin.
Kautsky, let us recall, did not really support the Kaiser. Instead, he effectively declared the class struggle over for the duration, said that the International was only an instrument for peacetime, for the gradual accumulation of forces ready to assume power when capitalism reached its inevitable point of breakdown, and that the war was therefore, far from being a revolutionary opportunity, a tragic diversion from this ineluctable onward march of history. Moreover, he argued that imperialism itself was a policy followed by misguided capitalists, rather than integral to capitalism, and it could be succeeded by a new phase of “ultra-imperialism” which might restore peace without the need for revolution. Kautsky never recovered politically from these misjudgements, because all the hitherto-concealed ambiguities and illusions in his pre-war “orthodoxy” were now, like the Emperor of fable, shown to have no clothes. He spent the rest of his political life railing against Leninism above all else.
The abuse which Lenin invariably directed at Kautsky – and which marks Imperialism too – reads as extraordinary in its intensity today, but can only be explained by, firstly, the immense prestige which Kautsky and his orthodox Marxism had had before 1914, including the influence which he had had, despite accumulating reservations, on Lenin himself; and second, Lenin’s sense of the immediacy of the revolutionary situation, which made diplomatic niceties a luxury.
Nothing was more important than taking down Kautsky, and this is central to Imperialism. Lenin could think of no worse insult in his pamphlet The Collapse of the Second International than to compare Kautsky to the leader of Marxism in Britain:
“… when, before the war, Hyndman turned towards a defence of imperialism, all respectable socialists considered him an unbalanced crank, of whom nobody spoke otherwise than in a tone of disdain. Today the most prominent Social-Democratic leaders of all countries have sunk entirely to Hyndman’s position, differing from one another only in shades of opinion and in temperament.
“If you are convinced that Hyndman’s chauvinism is false and destructive, does it not follow that you should direct your criticism and attacks against Kautsky, the more influential and more dangerous defender of such views?”i
Imperialism needs first of all to be understood as a polemic aimed at undermining the theoretical props of Kautskyism, and at reformulating the political base for world revolution in a new situation, in which the international working-class movement was split, on the one hand; but in which a host of democratic and national movements were coming to the fore in struggle against world capitalism, on the other. It shares that in common with nearly everything Lenin wrote in the period 1914-1917. Along with his speeches and writings around the early congresses of the Communist International, these works represent the pinnacle of his endeavour to chart a new politics for the international socialist movement.
In the 1914-17 period, running from the start of the war to the outbreak of the February revolution in Russia, Lenin took three clear and novel positions which defined Leninism and command our attention today. All three, unsurprisingly, have a bearing on imperialism. Two of them I can reference only briefly in this article.
First, he advocated, with that remarkable vehemence which admitted of no nuance, the need for socialists to effect a complete rupture with opportunism within their movement, for a break with the chauvinists who supported their own governments in the war, and with the centrists like Kautsky. In The Collapse of the Second International he wrote:
“Social-chauvinism is an opportunism which has matured to such a degree, grown so strong and brazen during the long period of comparatively ‘peaceful’ capitalism, so definite in its political ideology, and so closely associated with the bourgeoisie and the governments, that the existence of such a trend within the Social-Democratic workers’ parties cannot be tolerated.”ii
This opportunist and chauvinist trend he attributed to the development of imperialism. In another contemporary pamphlet, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, he wrote:
“why does England’s monopoly explain the (temporary) victory of opportunism in England? Because monopoly yields superprofits, ie a surplus of profits over and above the capitalist profits that are normal and customary all over the world. The capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance … between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries. England’s industrial monopoly was already destroyed by the end of the nineteenth century. That is beyond dispute. But … did all monopoly disappear?”iii
In fact, vast colonial holdings remained. Lenin makes the same connection towards the end of Imperialism. Alas, as we know all too well today, the victory of opportunism proved to be far from ‘temporary’.
In taking this ‘rupture’ position, Lenin had to confront powerful ‘unity’ arguments and attitudes which, even among anti-war socialists, looked to the restoration of the old parties after the war. But Lenin grasped that an epoch in the history of socialism had passed. He also identified imperialism as the issue on which what became the opposed camps of communists and social-democrats were most sharply distinguished from each other. This was the real foundation of the international communist movement. Ever since, the difference over imperialism has remained the key demarcation between communists, on the one hand, and social-democrats or liberals, on the other.
The second novelty in Lenin’s post-1914 approach was his stress on democratic questions, polemicising against those of his comrades, like Bukharin or Pyatakov, who dismissed the relevance or significance of the struggle for national independence. These views are most clearly expressed in his pamphlet The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism, where he wrote that
“all ‘democracy’ consists in the proclamation and realisation of ‘rights’ which under capitalism are realisable only to a very small degree and only relatively. But without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of this struggle, socialism is impossible.”iv
He further argues that national independence struggles contribute to the undermining of imperialism and ought to engage the support of the working-class movement. A commonplace today, but while one could find condemnations of colonial policy aplenty in the pre-war Second International, one would search almost in vain for a view representing such struggles as an organic part of the movement for socialism, in the great powers included. In The Socialist Revolution and the Right to Self-Determination he wrote:
“In the same way as mankind can arrive at the abolition of classes only through a transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, it can arrive at the inevitable integration of nations only through a transition period of the complete emancipation of all oppressed nations, ie their freedom to secede.
Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation … they must also render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their uprising – or revolutionary wars, in the event of one – against the imperialist powers that oppress them.”v
In this year of anniversaries, it is not irrelevant to point out that this insight of Lenin’s was applied to the assessment of the Easter Rising in Dublin. When the great James Connolly told his daughter shortly before his execution that “the socialists will not understand why I am here” he was not wrong. Most British socialists either cheered the suppression of the rising or ignored it as an embarrassment; and Radek and Trotsky among Lenin’s comrades dismissed it as an echo of an archaic past.
Lenin was the outstanding exception. He dismissed the socialist critics of the Rising as “monstrous pedants” and warned that no-one would ever live to see a pure revolution, pitting socialism against imperialism. He wrote:
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution …. Only those who hold a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch’. Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is .... Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats.”vi
I dwell on these points because they represented a challenge by Lenin not just to the predominant social-chauvinists, but also to many on the left of the movement, including Luxemburg, Radek and Trotsky. The latter still to some extent envisaged social revolution in the same terms as Kautsky, as the product of the maturing of the productive forces, the growth of the working-class and the inevitability of capitalist crisis.
Lenin saw social revolution as not just the product of the confrontation of workers and capitalists in the developed countries, but as the outcome of a sequence of upheavals including democratic revolutionary movements against imperialism. This was the first real conceptualisation of world revolution as more than a very general and abstract slogan. It gave a central role to the masses of peasants in Asia, the Middle East and the colonies generally, and it conceived of the overthrow of imperialism as a joint work of the working-class and the mass of oppressed peoples and nations. In this ideological crucible, the concept of world revolution was born.
This leads to Lenin’s third point of wartime departure, the formulation of a new understanding of world capitalist economy. In a way, this was the least novel. Much of the research and analytical spadework had already been done by others. Lenin’s Imperialism was about translating that work into a programme for socialist revolution, not in the future in general, but in the here and now, in contradistinction to Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism which looked to give opportunism a fresh coat of paint through envisaging a further stage of capitalism merging beyond the war.
Ultra-imperialism is, as even Lenin reluctantly conceded, a perfectly feasible line of capitalist development in the abstract, anticipating the tendency to monopoly extending still further to a fusion of the major capitalist powers. Trying to dismiss the possibility, at one point Lenin argued that ultra-imperialism was no more likely than developing food in a laboratory – something which has long since occurred, of course. The passion with which he opposed it was because it threatened to create a new post-war basis of Kautskyism, for the postponement of working-class power, for a reconciliation with opportunists after the war and its associated unpleasantness were over and for a denial of the urgency for revolutionary action in the present crisis.This is clear from Lenin’s foreword to Bukharin’s book on world economy, published shortly before his own.vii
I believe that any attempt to read Lenin’s Imperialism today out of this context, to read it as an attempt at an economic analysis of contemporary capitalism outside his project of imminent socialist and democratic world revolution, and breaking with opportunism, is flawed.
Lenin’s Imperialism drew very heavily on the radical and socialist critique of imperialism which developed over the fifteen or so years before his pamphlet. Indeed, if one could summarise Lenin’s Imperialism mathematically, it would be about 50% Rudolf Hilferding, 20% J A Hobson and the balance revolutionary dialectics directed against the international socialist establishment.
From Hobson, an English radical, Lenin obviously and explicitly took the idea of parasitism, of the decay of capitalist industry in its heartlands and the formation of a rentier class dependent on imperialist super-exploitation as a result of the export of capital. Hobson’s eminence, while to some extent merited, is down to the fact that Marxist anti-imperialism was all-but non-existent in Britain at the time he was writing, which left the field clear for his own radical ideas to gain an advanced position in the emerging labour movement, as radicalism did on all issues in the British workers’ movement at the time.
Hobson did not see the new imperialism as an inevitable development of a capitalism driven by the internal logic of accumulation to leave free enterprise behind, but rather as the product of the pressure of “the vested interests which … are shown to be the chief prompters of an imperialist policy … seeking their private commercial and financial gains at the expense and peril of the commonwealth.”viii
This was, as Marxist historian Victor Kiernan has put it, “capitalism … led astray by the self-interest of dealers in arms, war contractors, financiers and stock-jobbers”, almost empire-by-conspiracy.ix
Hobson believed therefore that the whole drive of imperialism could be obstructed by a return to a more democratic and enlightened capitalism. Expropriating the bourgeoisie, or seeing the capitalist class, as a whole, as the social sponsor of imperialism, formed no part of his perspective. Additionally, the emphasis on the financier sometimes led Hobson and some of his co-thinkers into the shallows of anti-Semitism, although he later resiled from such an attitude.
That racial trope aside, Hobson’s presentation of the new phase in economic and political life clearly offered something for almost everyone – a basis for trade union redistributive demands; a summons to defence of democracy and a ‘healthy’ British nationalism; the promotion of domestic consumption and, hence, local industry; and the advance of social reform without the need for the socialisation of the means of production. The subsequent development of the theory of the ‘anti-monopoly alliance’ by sections of the world communist movement owes him a debt which is seldom acknowledged.
The German Rudolf Hilferding was the most important single source of the analysis in Imperialism – arguably too much so in that Lenin’s work clearly better describes the German imperialism of the time than it does any other. Nevertheless, Hilferding’s book Finance Capital, published in 1910, was the first thoroughgoing attempt to look at the changes in capitalism since Marx’s work, other than the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. It had a big and mostly favourable impact on the socialist movement when first published; and, when Lenin was looking to outline his own views in popular form, he leaned heavily on Hilferding’s work, while updating many of the statistics and examples.
All of Lenin’s famous five points which signified the development of imperialism out of free-enterprise capitalism can be found in Hilferding. The latter outlined the emergence of finance capital from a merger of banking and industrial capital, the significance of the export of capital and the division of the world between monopolies and between imperialist powers. All these are Hilferding-ist rather than Leninist insights in their original form.
Hilferding, however, was describing finance capital but not ‘imperialism’, a term which he only seems to have added to the last chapter of his work in order to give it some additional polemical punch. But he nevertheless came close to grasping the essence of the new era in passages like the following:
“Violent methods are of the essence of colonial policy, without which it would lose its capitalist rationale. They are just as much an integral part of it as the existence of a propertyless proletariat is a condition sine qua non of capitalism in general. The idea of pursuing a colonial policy without having to resort to its violent methods is an illusion to be taken no more seriously than that of abolishing the proletariat while maintaining capitalism in existence.
“The demand for an expansionist policy revolutionises the whole world view of the bourgeoisie; it ceases to be peace-loving and humanitarian. The old free traders believed in free trade not only as the best economic policy but also as the beginning of an era of peace. Finance capital … has not faith in the harmony of capitalist interests, and knows well that competition is becoming increasingly a political power struggle. The ideal of peace has lost its lustre, and in place of the idea of humanity there emerges a glorification of the greatness and power of the state …. The ideal now is to secure for one’s own nation the domination of the world, an aspiration which is as unbounded as the capitalist lust for profit from which it springs …. Since the subjection of foreign nations takes place by force … it appears to the ruling nation that this domination is due to some special natural qualities, in short to its racial characteristics. Thus there emerges in racist ideology, cloaked in the garb of natural science, a justification for finance capital’s lust for power …. An oligarchic ideal of domination has replaced the democratic ideal of equality.”x
Here he foreshadows much of the analysis of the Communist movement, and Lenin’s own declaration in Imperialism that “politically, imperialism is a striving towards violence and reaction.” Hilferding did not himself develop these ideas in their revolutionary potential – he went on to serve as a social-democratic minister in the Weimar Republic, went into exile after Hitler came to power and was eventually murdered by the Gestapo in Paris. He seemed at several points to come close to a world-revolutionary conclusion, as when he wrote that the independence movement of the subjected people “threatens European capital precisely in its most valuable and promising areas of exploitation” but he did not develop the argument in terms of revolutionary solidarity between the labour and national liberation movements.
So, to sum up on this point, it is far from the case that, before Lenin’s Imperialism, the international socialist movement had not impressively analysed the new phase of capitalism, nor that it had ignored its political implications. What it had not done, as 1914 proved, was develop a new programme of world revolution which reflected these changed conditions; nor of course was it able to respond except by capitulation to the outbreak of the war it had foreseen, and wanting to put Humpty back together as soon as possible. Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, whatever abstract merit it had (and it had some) had the effect of prolonging the half-life of the passive inevitably of socialist advance which was the hallmark of the Second International.
From the scientific point of view, Lenin did not intend his pamphlet to constitute the last word on the subject. We know this in part because he told us so. In The Collapse of the Second International he wrote:
“… a comprehensive scientific analysis of imperialism is one thing – that analysis is only under way and, in essence, is as infinite as science itself …. Capitalism will never be completely and exhaustively studied in all the manifestations of its predatory nature, and in all the minute ramifications of its historical development and national features.”xi
Indeed, he further acknowledged himself that his analysis of imperialism could not be a one-size-fits-all doctrine. In 1916 in several places he wrote that Russian imperialism had a “military-feudal” nature, and noted in Imperialism that it was “enmeshed … in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.” The same analysis should surely apply to some degree to Austro-Hungarian imperialism (the power which started the war), a ramshackle semi-feudal structure in which monopoly capital was hardly the decisive element. Even French imperialism did not have the same relationship between banks and industry, due to the weakness of industrial capital.
So, out of the principal combatants in 1916, Lenin himself really only saw his thesis as closely fitting German and British capitalism; and the structure of those two imperialisms was hardly identical either, since Britain’s long-standing domination of the world market had lessened competitive pressures and hence the concentration of capital to some extent. It can be seen in his pamphlet that the first chapters on the role of banks and the formation of monopolies draw very heavily on Germany, while those on the export of capital and parasitism dwell much more on Britain. This underlines the political and contingent, as well as synthetic, nature of his analysis.
I have avoided so far giving Lenin’s pamphlet its full title, which is of course Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Interestingly, it may have been given a weight that Lenin never fully intended it to bear. Moira Donald, in her study of the relationship of the Russian revolutionaries to Kautsky, points out that it was first published as Imperialism, the Most Recent Stage of Capitalism, and that “a very high stage of capitalism” would be an equally acceptable translation. Indeed, Lenin was ready to call it Special Features of Recent Capitalism if that would help get it past the censor; although on balance, given his desire to foreclose Kautsky’s ultra-imperialist option, he most likely did indeed mean “highest” and final.xii
Indeed, there was one way in which Lenin did unambiguously mean the imperialist stage of capitalism to be the final one – several times in Imperialism he argues, to quote,
“capitalism in its imperialist stage leads right up to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it…drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of new social order.”xiii
He famously wrote in the preface to the German edition, published in 1920, that imperialism was the eve of proletarian revolution. Now this was immediately and urgently true then, but even if one takes a long view of history, it remains true today only as a sort of comforting abstraction. Imperialism has itself gone through several metamorphoses both in terms of its inner structure and its political expression since, sufficient to make the whole “highest stage” argument pointless. The ‘even higher stage’ which Lenin was eager to foreclose in 1916 – that is, ultra-imperialism – cannot be so easily dismissed today.
Lenin also states that imperialism is monopoly capitalism, although on the same page he describes this formula as “inadequate”. Now, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy:
“In practical life we find not only competition, monopoly and the antagonism between them, but also the synthesis of the two, which is not a formula, but a movement. Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. Monopolists compete among themselves; competitors become monopolists.”xiv
Lenin acknowledged this point, albeit rather weakly. In a world today where many of the biggest monopolies – Google, Microsoft, Amazon – did not exist twenty years ago, Marx’s position is evidently more accurate than any argument that monopoly is simply decaying, parasitic capitalism, unless one understands the latter as simply a general statement that capitalism can no longer do anything which socialism could not do better.
Lenin’s main innovation was to foreground uneven development, to take Marx’s description of capitalism’s cyclical growth, with its continuous unevenness between different branches of industry, into a global formula for the uneven development of the world system as a whole and hence for war, amongst other depredations. From this comes the famous ‘weak link’ theory, which Lenin saw as the point of departure for a new era of revolution and which he deployed to good effect in Russia itself of course.
And the real objective of Imperialism flowed from this – the refutation of Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, or the idea that capitalism could resolve its problems not just without socialism, but without world revolution and now. It is this political objective that sits at the heart of the work. Imperialism is the bridge from The Collapse of the Second International to the April Theses of 1917.
So what is left today from a century of sweeping changes, advances and reverses, but in a world which is still dominated entirely by the capitalist system? Too often, comrades at this point whip out Lenin’s five criteria characterising the new epoch of a century ago, find data, which is not lacking, to prove that they are still operative, and then declare Lenin’s theory as relevant as ever, and consider their analytical work done.
In my opinion such an approach is the approach of a Kautsky, not a Lenin. It ignores the new, and it underpins threadbare political strategies. It does not address the issue of what weight should be given today to those factors, extant though they surely are.
For example, in a recent interview a leader of a major communist party says Lenin’s analysis is simply truer than ever. He describes a very large number of states as imperialist, including Denmark, Belgium and Brazil, as if the actual international role played by such countries, and their autonomous power, was an immaterial consideration. This is a curiously apolitical analysis which could only be a ‘Leninist’ position in the sense that, if monopoly capitalism equals imperialism and monopoly indeed dominates these countries, then they are all imperialist. However, that reduces Leninism to political sterility. It leaves out the actual global political struggle and power alignments, which was at the heart of Lenin’s outlook. He always identified the main enemy clearly – in 1916, the three or four great powers dominating the world and driving to war. It is a mistake to dissolve the actual hierarchies of modern imperialism into a general soup of monopoly capitalist states, as if they all played an equivalent role. The USA is a source of new war dangers. So are Britain, France, Japan and Russia. Denmark and Belgium are not.
A broader assessment of the contemporary vitality of Lenin’s analysis must instead start where he himself started from – the structures and rhythms of capital accumulation. The control of the concentration of capital, and the political intervention to sustain the extraction of super-profit, remain the key issues to address. In that light, some of the criteria focussed on by Hilferding and Lenin need considering from a fresh perspective.
For example, take the export of capital – this is now a ubiquitous feature of world economy and represents different movements of capital in the world today, reflecting new centres of accumulation.
Even at the time Lenin wrote it was a determining factor possibly only in Britain. Much capital in all the great powers was anyway circulated between developed countries, where it played the part of equalising the rate of profit, not as a source of super-profit. But there is no doubt that it played a large part in the politics of imperialism, not just in 1916 but down to the end of World War Two, with significant echoes thereafter.
The export of capital is no longer simply a matter of surplus value extracted in British factory production being exported to less developed parts of the world where the rate of return will be higher, enriching the rentiers while starving the domestic productive economy of necessary reinvestment. Capital is circulated across the world by an incipient pan-national financial oligarchy centred on London, New York, Hong Kong etc – this is the core of globalisation – with fantastic rewards distributed across the ruling classes of many countries. All this is protected by a world power structure that depends in the end on a US super-imperialism.
Today, does the fact that Chinese companies, themselves indistinguishable from monopolies, have invested $40 billion in Africa in the last ten years, mainly in resource extraction, mean that China is imperialist, even though Chinese state intervention in African countries is very limited?
Or does the investment in Britain by the kleptocracies of the Gulf, now exceeding £100 billion as they have appropriated much of the value of oil production, invert the classical imperial relationship, or does their continuing reliance on western military power to protect them (including from their own people) mean they remain dependent?
The formation of new circuits of capital, new projects for extracting super-profit across borders, and new political alliances behind the formalities of states at least requires that the political significance of the export of capital (not the fact of its pervasive nature, which is undisputed) be looked at afresh.
Neither is the division of the world between rival monopolies, mainly through the use of tariff barriers, the factor today that it was in Lenin’s time. It exists, and there are still occasions when the big capitalist states intervene to advance their own national monopolies against their rivals, but often this is subordinated under neoliberalism to collaboration between the main imperialist powers to impose joint market access open to all in most of the globe.
The struggle for spheres of influence does not, for the most part, take the same form of unabashed and exclusive hegemony over particular regions. Even the struggles over Ukraine or in the Far East (while undoubtedly great power conflicts) do not bear comparison, from that point of view, with the colonial position before 1914 (or 1945 for that matter). So it seems hard to deny that the imperialist world order has mutated in many of its key features, while retaining in full force its violent and exploitative essence.
Some features of the new order remain remarkably familiar, to be sure. Lenin wrote:
“... the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still ‘reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the ‘geniuses’ of financial manipulation. At the basis of these manipulations and swindles lies socialised production; but the immense progress of mankind which achieved this socialisation, goes to benefit … the speculators.”xv
This has not always been true since then. It was curbed somewhat in the thirty years after World War Two, but it is of course true again today with a vengeance. No-one can doubt that the insight into the development of a parasitic rentier class based in the countries towards the apex of the world hierarchy remains a key feature of capitalism today.
The neoliberal phase is monopoly capitalist imperialism’s third major period of development. First, monopoly led to the period of inter-imperialist competition of Lenin’s time, a period marked politically by the division and redivision of the world between the great powers and, of course, war. After 1945, in a world divided between social systems and dominated by a super-imperialism in its capitalist part with inter-imperialist rivalries abated, there was the first development of a pan-imperialist bloc, using common institutions alongside conventional methods to confront socialism and exploit the rest of the world.
And third, we have the present neoliberal, globalised world order with powerful elements of ultra-imperialism. Lenin used ‘ultra-imperialism’ and ‘super-imperialism’ interchangeably. Now it can be used to differentiate between the domination by a sole imperial power – super-imperialism, the USA – and the architecture that Kautsky spoke of, an ultra-imperialism fusing all the rival great powers into one bloc with its own machinery etc. These two concepts are not opposites, of course, and are entwined in their own development. Indeed, the development of any form of ultra-imperialism depends in the first place on the strength of US super-imperialism, the only state able to enforce such a project.
So imperialism, highest stage or not, is a protean phenomenon. What special features should we note today?
First, wage-labour is now a nearly universal condition: the destruction of the USSR, the incorporation of eastern Europe into the imperialist system, the shift to capitalism in China and the changes in India have all drawn billions into wage-labour, something that was a long way off in Lenin’s time. This has of course given capitalism an extended lease on life, at the same time as complicating the search for super-profit in the longer term in the face of trends, moving very slowly admittedly, towards the equalisation of the value of labour power.xvi
Secondly, with the integration of the world system and its mediation through NATO, the IMF, the EU, the WTO and so on, the world has clearly advanced further in the direction of ultra-imperialism than anyone could reasonably have anticipated in 1916. This has of course not meant the world of peace that Kautsky seemed to anticipate. It has created a dystopia instead, with continual wars designed ultimately to create and re-create in an endless cycle, the conditions for global, friction-free process of capital accumulation without any people anywhere being able to put sand in the gears for any reason. The attempt by the USA to extend its super-imperialist hegemony in the capitalist part of the world before 1991 into a truly global hegemony afterwards has surely failed, although its reverberations live on, and either Clinton or Trump may yet decide to attempt to shape ultra-imperialism more to specific US interests.
Third, within this ultra-imperialism based on a super-imperialism, new rivalries emerge: elements of ultra-imperialism, inter-imperialist rivalry and super-imperialist US hegemony interact but in a new balance which changes continually. New centres of war are arising: the Middle East, where Russian imperialist interests collide with those of the USA and its allies; in eastern Europe, where the eastward expansion of the US world order meets the revival of Russian power; and in the Pacific, where the US and its allies seek to defend the existing hegemonic relations against the assertion of Chinese power and sovereignty.
You can call these conflicts inter-imperialist or something else (the left is generally reluctant to acknowledge the relevance of Lenin’s formulae in relation to contemporary Russia and China), but there is no doubt that they all embody the danger of enormous wars, and that none of the powers involved can plausibly claim to be driven by socialism, as opposed to great-power nationalism.
The definition of imperialism offered by Victor Kiernan is a good one:
“Imperialism today may be said to display itself in coercion exerted abroad, by one means or another, to extort profits above what simple commercial exchange can procure.”xvii
The connecting of state violence with the pursuit of super-profit surely gets close to the heart of the matter.
Or, take Tony Corfield’s recent book The City, which locates contemporary finance in the analysis of imperialism, and a British imperialism moreover. He writes:
“Today, imperialism is characterised by economic privileges in the world economy, reinforced by monopolistic control of industry, commerce and finance, and backed up by powerful states, directly or indirectly.”xviii
This speaks rightly to the emergence of a global hierarchy of power, under which a very wide range of economic actors can prosper, from all parts of the globe, but with power actually exercised through a world-hegemonic system headed by the USA. This system operates in the spirit of the early post-1991 US strategic analysts who spoke of the US creating a world system which could provide for the interests of others, not just the US itself, provided the central hegemonic principle was not challenged.
That system is of course now indeed being challenged – by Russia and China. They are half-in, arguing for more favourable terms of integration but with no objections in principle, and half-out, pressing against the system, toying with creating alternative centres of accumulation and power or with integrating with it.
It is also being challenged by the masses in a diversity of ways, rebelling against the global imperial elite, its wars and its crises. The historic election of an avowed anti-imperialist as leader of the British Labour Party, for a hundred years in the vanguard of social imperialism, is one measure of this.
The world working-class, itself in the process of formation, now faces a world-imperial system, based on a new level of global monopoly capital integration and on the power of one state above all, but with many of the attributes of an ultra-imperialism. We need to support all struggles of peoples against that system, and to find weak links as the system disintegrates in situations of economic crisis, but to avoid aligning the working class with one imperial power or another.
To conclude: how would Lenin meet this world? What would Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism look like in this world of undivided capitalist power, universal wage labour and new hegemonic structures generating small but globalised wars, threatening much larger conflicts?
Lenin would emphasise the democratic question, and the need to support all struggles against imperialism under whatever banner; he would expose any illusions – and there have been plenty, – that this new world order could be one of peace and harmony while it rests upon monopoly capitalism; and he would stress the need to rupture ideologically with those sections of the labour movement which argued for support for the new order.
He would look for the way to reconceptualise the need for world revolution in the light of the recent very heavy defeats and the emergence of globalisation, and he would demand the most severe scrutiny of all programmes and principles which corresponded to the previous epoch of capitalism.
In short, he would urge international labour to settle accounts with its inner Kautsky, the clinging to the formulas of the past phase and the cosy assumptions of legality and peaceful development, before things gets worse.
Notes and References
Notes and References to this article may be found in the print edition, which can be ordered by clicking here