Home > 2016 > Centenary of Lenin’s Imperialism

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 38 New Delhi September 10, 2016

Centenary of Lenin’s Imperialism

Friday 9 September 2016, by Anil Rajimwale

If Karl Marx was the theoretician of the capitalist era, Lenin was one of the imperialist era. They both occupy the same height in the annals of human thought, because they both cover a whole era of human history.

V.I. Lenin, that great theoretician of the present era, wrote his epoch-making work, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, exactly a hundred years ago. Marx had in his days encompassed the whole era of capitalism and its transition to socialism. Lenin raised the bar of analysis higher and drew attention to the transformation of capitalism into imperialism, which alienated not only the mass of workers and peasants but also the mass of non-financial productive producers/capitalists themselves, particularly the small and medium producers and capitalists.

The theory of ‘imperialism’ still is a guide in its general essentials, though much has since changed in the world. It no doubt needs updating, yet it continues to be the main reference-point.

Lenin drew heavily upon the political scientist and famous economist, John A. Hobson, who first used the term ‘imperialism’ in the sense of a level of economic mode of production. That was in 1902 when his famous work, Imperialism: A Study, was published in England. He said that imperialism was an economic, political and cultural practice among the advanced capitalist countries, which had excess of capital.

In 1910 was published another seminal research titled, The Finance Capital, by the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding. He showed that capital was displaying tendencies of concentration, and the capitals in industry, circulation and banking were merging together, leading to the emergence of a new form of capital, which he termed ‘finance capital’. It was shown that finance capital tended to exist independent of production.

Engels’ Insight on Trends of Monopolisation

The first decade of the 20th century proved crucial to the development of European and world capitalism. It also, consequently, proved crucial to the strategy and tactics of the international working class movement. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, capitalism displayed trends of monopo-lisation and ‘imperialism’. Production and capital were getting concentrated and centralised, leading to the emergence of monopoly capital, a new level of concentration. These two features were already noted in the 1890s by the great dialectician, Frederick Engels, who showed that the monopolies were spreading the world over and dividing markets. The arms race and armament production were increasing as never before.

Engels noted that world capitalism of Europe was getting divided into groups, with a tendency to forcibly pull each other down. There already took place minor and major skirmishes between various emerging powers. The conflict between France and Germany on Alsace-Lorraine and Ruhr were becoming serious, even ominous. England was expanding its domination in Europe and outside in the backward colonial countries. Russia was becoming a big imperialist power. For the first time after the Crimean War of the mid-1850s, such tension was being built up in Europe. This time it was not simple capitalism; it was the emerging imperialism that was the cause of it. Imperialism was strangulating simple competitive capitalism.

Engels even forecast that the future war would be a ‘world war’ of unprecedented proportions with unheard of magnitude of human destruction. He even predicted that ‘millions of people’ would be killed in the future world war, if it took place. Engels’ scientific prediction came more than true.

Let us note that Engels died in 1895; so his prediction was at least two decades old!

Discovery of ‘Imperialism’ by Lenin

Lenin was in exile at the beginning of the 20th century, travelling to various countries, including England. He was in Switzerland in the midst of the World War I (WWI). He made use of his time visiting libraries to study the contemporary problems. It was in Zurich that he wrote his famous work, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. He mentions the fact that he wrote the pamphlet in Zurich in 1916 in difficult conditions. There was a serious dearth of material, particularly of Russian literature. He spent his time studying primarily the changes taking place in the capitalist mode of production. He consulted libraries in many countries. He also spent time organising the social democrats of Russia outside the country, as also debating in the Second International.

As such, he had a great opportunity to interact, directly and indirectly, with various leaders including Plekhanov, Kautsky, Ahrent, Hilferding, Martov and a host of others. Karl Kautsky was the natural inheritor of the traditions of Engels, despite his serious shortcomings. Lenin had occasion to criticise Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Austro-Marxism was busy deve-loping its own view of imperialism. Lenin also later criticised the views of Rosa Luxemburg on imperialism.

The last decade of 19th and the first two decades of the 20th century saw the trans-formation of capitalism into imperialism along with its growing stratification. The Russo-Japanese war had taken place in 1904-05. The famous Balkan wars took place later. Several other wars broke out at various points in Europe. At the same time, wars in Africa, China, Afghanistan and elsewhere broke out. Capital was getting concentrated as never before. Simultaneously capital was flying out of production into finance and speculation. These were some of the symptoms of emerging finance capital and imperialism.

Features of Imperialism

Lenin, on the basis of his extensive studies, enumerates five basic features of imperialism: concentration and centralisation of production and capital leading to the emergence of monopolies; merger of industrial and banking capitals: emergence of finance capital; export of capital; economic division of the world; territorial division of the world.

A handful of growingly big capitalists concentrate production and capital in their hands, at the cost of other producers and the workers. Concentration produces displacement at the other pole: the small and medium producers face increasing competition from the monopolists, known as monopoly competition. It is not so easy for them to sustain either in production or in the market.

Thus monopolisation destroys or puts hurdles in the path of the growth of small entre-preneurship. It certainly exploits the workers and peasants even more. Merger of banking and industrial capital creates a new and powerful stage of capital, that is, finance capital. Small-scale industry and capital in itself is not finance capital. This confusion should be avoided. Financial monopoly at this stage tends to prevent the transfer of capital to industry, particularly to smaller scales of production: it ‘tends’ to, does not do it wholly.

These tendencies create increasing numbers of layers of capitalist owners within the capitalist class. Lenin has analysed the process in detail in his various works.

Since finance capital can garner profits from other capitals through using money transfers, speculation becomes a crucial method to make more money. With the passage of time, finance capital flies out of production into speculation. It becomes a powerful force with the help of the state and stock exchange and prevents the growth of productive capacities. Non-monopoly production suffers heavily.

That is why and how finance capital becomes a hurdle in the path of development of the productive forces.

Lenin also characterised imperialism as moribund and parasitic. It has to be remembered that he wrote the work in the conditions of WWI, when unprecedented destruction of human life and material took place. About a crore (ten million) of people died in the War, and this was unparalleled till then. Most modern weapons to kill humans were developed. Productive forces were being destroyed on an unprecedented scale. Engels was proved correct.

Imperialism and Lenin’s theory of ‘Democratic Revolution’

Lenin related his theory of new and higher stage of capitalism (imperialism) with changes in the forms and methods of revolution. Revolution would now take place in the weakest link of imperialist chain. Imperialism was preventing the growth of capitalist relations and of democracy itself, as Lenin showed in his analysis. Therefore, it was leaving the tasks of the bourgeois revolution unfinished. It was also exploiting and throwing out or finishing the non-monopoly sections of capitalism.

Imperialism was further causing rapid stratification within the capitalist class. It created non-monopoly and non- and anti-imperialist sections/strata among the bourgiosie. This fact is generally ignored by the political thinkers. With the emergence of centralised monopolies and imperialists, other sections of the capitalist class are alienated and exploited by imperialism. Imperialism prevents the growth of capitalism, at least of freely developing capitalism.

 Therefore, these sections along with workers and peasants, as also the middle class intelligentsia and petty bourgeoisie, constituted a vast spectrum to fulfil the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in the imperialist era. Its colonial variety was particularly discussed in the 1920 Congress of the Comintern. Lenin emphasised the importance of united democratic revolutions in the colonial and other countries in his controversies with M.N. Roy and others, who adopted a sectarian approach.

Lenin, while working out features of imperialism, also dwelt upon the need for the democratic revolution in his famous work Two Tactics of Social Democracy. It is a scientific work still helping to understand the contemporary processes.

Lenin’s theory on bourgeois democratic revolution continues to be valid today, though it has changed in many essentials. The theory forms the basis of the present-day strategy and of programmes of the Communist Parties, including in India. Lenin’s concept flows directly from his analyses of imperialism, and charts out the tasks before the people in such a situation. 

‘Fascism’ of Extreme Rightwing Sections of Imperialism

General Secretary of the Communist Inter-national Georgy Dimitrov in 1935 characterised fascism as the extreme form of dictatorial rule of the most extreme Rightwing sections of finance and imperialist capital. Developing Lenin’s theses, Dimitrov noted further differen-tiation within the world capitalist class. Fascism strove to destroy the working class movement, and along with it, the bourgeois democratic rights and democratic constitutional system. Thus, an all-out democratic unity of all the anti-fascist and democratic forces was the objective necessity of the situation.

Dimitrov’s theses of the broadest possible anti-fascist united front were a creative development of Lenin’s theory on the democratic revolution and democratic unity. Lenin had criticised the leaders of the Italian working class, including the Communists, for under-estimating the grave dangers to democracy from the fascists. Let it be noted that during Lenin’s lifetime, fascism was only in its incipient form. Leaders were not yet clear about its true nature.

The Contemporary Imperialism 

Much has changed since Lenin’s time. Not all of the formulations of Lenin on imperialism are applicable today, particularly when there is an explosion of new productive forces and means of information.

For one thing, some of the points in Lenin seem to be overstated, which is natural in the conditions of world war. Productive forces keep developing today as never before. It cannot be said as generalisation that capitalism and imperialism are moribund and parasitic.

Besides, many new features have emerged in the contemporary world economy. The contra-diction and conflict between finance and industrial capitals have proceeded apace. It has led to a situation where, though there is no dearth of wealth, in fact there is a surplus of it, there is at the same time a serious dearth of capital. This is particularly the situation in the US. This is a serious and peculiar contradiction of modern advanced capitalism today. This way it is preventing its own development. The smaller scales of production and the developing countries are suffering in particular.

The serious obstacles for capitalisation of wealth emerge from a domination of finance capital over the Western economies. Financial monopolies, as opposed to industrial ones, are sucking the life-source out of the economy. Finance capital more and more shows a strong tendency to fly out of production and into speculation, share markets, forward and virtual trade and prime and sub-prime markets. This creates a crisis of productive investment.

Today, there is a debate in the West on whether there is a surplus of investment or its dearth. The financial system is variously named, such as, ‘money manager capitalism’, ‘parasitic’, ‘unproductive’ etc. capitalist system. Clearly, things are moving towards a serious crisis of investment as such.

Another major feature is the introduction of the electronics revolution into the capitalist production and finance markets. It has caused the crises to appear and spread very quickly over the whole global market.

Thus today’s imperialism is not able to adjust itself to the fast-changing and developing productive forces. This creates an anti-imperialist situation, in economy and politics as well as in ideology.

The situation creates new and far wider conditions for a new kind of broadbased democratic transformation of society with the help of the democratic institutions.

The new task is to restore the productive capacities of the society by curbing its financial tendencies.

We have entered a new era of democratic revolutions, backed by mass movements and mass democratic structures.

The author is a Marxist ideologue.