Lenin’s laboratory: A review of Day and Gaido, Discovering Imperialism

Submitted by PaulHampton on Sun, 12/29/2013 - 11:53

“It is the same with the policy of Social Democracy as with any other: if you do not move forwards, you go backwards. Whoever closes his eyes out of a (not necessarily conscious) fear of the consequences of stating what is, has not only failed to fulfil his Social-Democratic duty to say what is but will also be forced to say what in reality does not exist, to spread illusions. Any misunderstanding of reality leads to confusion.”
Karl Radek, Ways and Means in the Struggle against Imperialism (14 September 1912). D&G 2012: 615


Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written at the height of the First World War almost a century ago, remains enormously influential on the left internationally. Lenin intended his book to be a popular outline, fit to pass the Russian censor. It was primarily an attempt to explain from processes in the real world why the mighty international socialist movement had split, with the vast majority of organisations, from leaders to the rank and file, had supported their own governments in the mutual slaughter.

Lenin’s book was published in Russian, initially in a mangled edition because Menshevik publishers removed some of his acerbic comments about his former mentor and Marxist-in-chief Karl Kautsky, who had rationalised the vote by German SPD leaders for war credits in 1914. The book only fully saw the light of day in 1917, with French and German editions translated for the Second Congress of the Communist International in July 1920. English translations appeared in the late 1920s.

Lenin’s version of imperialism was by no means universally accepted across the Marxist left – even among the Bolshevik party at the time. Bukharin developed a distinctive variant of his own, while the debates at the Second and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern showed a mixture of opinion, including sympathy with Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of imperialism, which Lenin opposed.

Lenin’s book only became gospel on the left after Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy turned it into a rigid, one-sided dogma, which predicted only inter-imperialist war between the big powers (together with war on the USSR) and frozen relations between these powers and the colonies, which were bound to stagnate.

Uncovering the origins of Lenin’s view on imperialism, at least in English, has taken many decades and is still not resolved. The publication of Lenin’s Collected Works in the 1960s meant it was possible to read the wider range of articles he wrote at the same time. Volume 39, which consists of his notebooks on imperialism shows the wider sources Lenin drew on. The translation of Kautsky’s Socialism and Colonial Policy (1975) and in particular Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1981) showed where many key ideas on monopoly, finance capital, the export of capital, cartels and trusts and territorial division were first systematised, before popularisation in Lenin’s book.

However the publication of Richard Day and Daniel Gaido’s (henceforth D&G) selection, Discovering Imperialism (2012) gives the English-language reader access for the first time to many of key articles on which Lenin’s Imperialism rested.

Lenin’s imperialism

Lenin’s book sought to provide an explanation for the two central events of his time: the causes of the First World War and the collapse of the socialist parties into chauvinistic support for their own governments in the war. He did so within a single, coherent explanation of imperialism, which extrapolated from Marxist political economy some central tendencies, which converged to produce military conflict between the big powers.

He gave a definition of imperialism that included five basic features:
(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has 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 as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.
Lenin, [January-June 1916] Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, LCW 22: 266-67
As such he defined imperialism (LCW 22: 238-39) as “that highest stage of capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions”.

Imperialism was primarily about the conflictual relations between the great power empires that had led to war; relations between these powers and the rest of the world were a subordinate element of inter-imperialist rivalry. If we distinguish the associations between the big powers as horizontal relations; and relations between these powers individually and collectively and the rest of the world as vertical relations, it is clear that in classical Marxism horizontal relations predominate, while in later theories (such as dependency and post-colonial theories), it is vertical relations that are foreground. In Lenin, there is an important sense of fluidity between individual states, their neighbours, rivals, partners and associates. This fluidity is missing in many subsequent accounts.

Working class opportunism

The main focus of Lenin’s study is not especially the characterisation of the world war as imperialist: that was self-evident from the previous Marxist analysis to which he simply provided a popular synthesis. Lenin’s more distinctive contribution, though one shared with other Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, was his explanation of causes of social-chauvinism within the working class movement that had led leaders and party members to renege on promises of international solidarity and support their own governments in the imperialist slaughter.

Lenin’s position is succinctly stated in book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (LCW 22: 280-81): “The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc, makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others.”

Lenin based his case on references made by Marx and Engels to England’s nineteenth century global hegemony, which had led to the alleged embourgeoisment of the English working class, in the form of a labour aristocracy and a labour bureaucracy of full-time party functionaries, trade union officials and parliamentary representatives. Lenin had first used this argument in September 1907 (and generalised it), after attending the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, where right-wing participants argued for a “socialist colonial policy”, while the left rejected such notions.

Lenin wrote (LCW 13: 76-77) that the debate “revealed a negative feature in the European labour movement, one that can do no little harm to the proletarian cause, and for that reason should receive serious attention. Marx frequently quoted a very significant saying of Sismondi. The proletarians of the ancient world, this saying runs, lived at the expense of society; modern society lives at the expense of the proletarians”. Lenin reiterated that “the non-propertied, but non-working, class is incapable of overthrowing the exploiters”. Only the proletarian class, he said, can bring about the social revolution. However as a result of the extensive colonial policy, “the European proletarian partly finds himself in the position when it is not his labour but the labour of the practically enslaved natives of the colonies that maintains the whole of society. In certain countries this provides the material economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism”.

But Lenin’s analysis was not especially original. Much of it was a paraphrase from comments in Marx and Engels’ correspondence with their contemporaries, which was published for the first time at the turn of the century. In The War in South Africa (November 1899), Kautsky quoted Engels’ argument that “during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working-class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly”. Kautsky added (D&G 2012: 157, 160): “The workers of England feel united with their capitalists as a privileged class vis-à-vis the population of the conquered territory”. Similarly, Julian Marchlewski (D&G 2012: 311) argued in 1904 that “an incidental feature of the trust-system is that it begins a stratum of workers who, through the quality of their work and the level of their wages, rise above the mass of the workers and, as a consequence, come into a certain contradiction with their own work”.

There are a number of serious flaws with this explanation of working class opportunism. Its proponents did not demonstrate that the origin of most profits in the advanced states derived from colonial exploitation. In fact, Marx’s theory suggests the bulk of surplus was generated from the exploitation of waged labour by capital, i.e. was produced mainly “at home” because of mechanisation, technology, the reorganisation of the labour process etc. This also explains the higher wages granted to industrial workers, off the back of their own exploitation and the class struggle derived from it. Second, even where vast tribute was extracted from the colonies, the mechanisms through which this was transmitted to bribe layers of workers, rather than confined to capitalists, are not specified. Third, the analysis was stretched, applying to societies before the monopoly “stage” had been reached and to states that did not have colonies or were necessarily imperialist in the modern sense. Finally, even if the hypothesis could be proven, it is then difficult to see how such a grip could be broken, thereby writing off the working class as the key progressive social force. If the working class was bound to capital in this way, there would be little prospect of a working class revolution.

These contradictions were exposed in reality even at the time Lenin stated the thesis. The better-off “aristocratic” layers of the working class had been involved in the pre-war industrial unrest and they were central to the stewards committees, factory councils and in some places, workers’ councils that emerged in wartime and in the revolutionary upsurge afterwards. Of course the opportunist leaders of socialists and trade unions kept their peace with their own ruling classes. But the broader layers of workers proved to be precisely the social force Marxists had long believed would fight for socialism.

Lenin of course did not abandon the centrality of the working class. In fact in his writings at the time, he clearly articulated working class anti-imperialism. In The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up (July 1916, LCW 22: 357), Lenin wrote that “The dialectics of history are such that small nations powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene”. And in A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (August-October 1916), he wrote (LCW 23: 63) that “it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism”. Lenin’s epigones may have forgotten these strictures, but then this reflects a wider failure to put his analysis of imperialism in context.

Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism

With the material now available, it is necessary to underline Lenin’s lack of originality: he did not innovate any of the central arguments about imperialism. Perhaps this is most starkly obvious in the description of imperialism as the latest and highest stage of capitalism. As early as the SPD’s Mainz Congress in 1900, during the debates over a resolution on world policy, Anton Friedrich described imperialism as “perhaps the last stage of development of capitalism” (D&G 2012: 19 N.61). Imperialism was referred to repeatedly in subsequent years, to the extent that it was the conventional wisdom among Marxists. Probably the starkest expression was given by Hilferding in Finance Capital (1910):
Finance capital, in its maturity, is the highest stage of the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the capitalist oligarchy. It is the climax of the dictatorship of the magnates of capital. At the same time it makes the dictatorship of the capitalist lords of one country increasingly incompatible with the capitalist interests of other countries, and the internal domination of capital increasingly irreconcilable with the interests of the mass of the people, exploited by finance capital but also summoned into battle against it. In the violent clash of these hostile interests the dictatorship of the magnates of capital will finally be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat. (1981: 370)

In 1911, Luxemburg (D&G 2012: 470) referred to modern imperialism as “the final period of capitalist development”, while in 1912, Marchlewski wrote (D&G 2012: 521) that “capitalist development has reached its highest degree of maturity”. Paul Lensch wrote (D&G 2012: 571-2) that “imperialism has always been described as the last and highest stage of capitalist society… We thus see that imperialism actually means the era of revolution, that it is the last word of capitalism”. Karl Radek (D&G 2012: 613) saw in imperialism “the last phase of dying capitalism”.

Such was the ubiquity of the idea that even the heavily bureaucratised SPD, at its party congress at Chemnitz, (15-21 September 1912), supported it. The lead speaker Hugo Haase said (D&G 2012: 644, 673) that “imperialism drives the capitalist system to its highest stage”, while the resolution stated: “It is therefore the task of the proletariat to transform capitalism, now brought to its highest stage, into socialist society, thus securing lasting peace, independence, and freedom for the peoples”.


The same is true of the five features Lenin highlighted. The importance of monopolies, cartels and trusts can be found in the writings of Marx and Engels. They were popularised by Kautsky in his commentary on the Erfurt Programme, known as the Class Struggle (1892). Kautsky wrote: “During the last twenty years the number of trusts, through which the price and production of certain wares is ‘regulated’, has increased greatly, especially in ‘protected’ countries, such as the United States, France and Germany. The trust, once formed, the several concerns that have combined constitute virtually only one concern, under the guidance of a single head.”

More significantly, these tendencies had been the subject of the revisionist controversy instigated by Eduard Bernstein in 1896-98. Bernstein argued in a series called “the problems of socialism” that the formation of cartels and the use of credit had averted the crisis tendencies of capitalism. Bernstein’s articles were robustly challenged by Parvus, who asserted that the tendencies towards the concentration of capital were still evident, and by Luxemburg, who argued that cartels simply transferred the crisis tendencies previous seen at home onto the world market (Tudor and Tudor, Marxism and Social Democracy, 1988). Similarly Kautsky criticised the revisionist treatment of cartels and trusts in his Bernstein and the Social Democratic Programme: an Anti-Critique (1899), a book favourably reviewed by Lenin at the time, including the specific section on cartels and monopoly.

Finance capital

Lenin made the concept of finance capital central to his account of imperialism, relying on Hilferding for inspiration. Hilferding (1981: 301) said finance capital “signifies the unification of capital”. He wrote: “The previously separate spheres of industrial, commercial and bank capital are now brought under the common direction of high finance, in which the masters of industry and of the banks are united in a close personal association”. The basis of this association was “the elimination of free competition among individual capitalists by the large monopolistic combines. This naturally involves at the same time a change in the relation of the capitalist class to state power”. He explained the connection with imperialism thus:
Finance capital puts control over social production increasingly into the hands of a small number of large capitalist associations, separates the management of production from ownership, and socializes production to the extent that this is possible under capitalism. The limits of capitalist socialization are constituted, in the first place, by the division of the world market into national economic territories of individual states, a division which can only be overcome partially and with great difficulty through international cartelization, and which also prolongs the duration of the competitive struggle which the cartels and trusts wage against one another with the aid of state power… Even today, taking possession of six large Berlin banks would mean taking possession of the most important spheres of large-scale industry, and would greatly facilitate the initial phases of socialist policy during the transition period, when capitalist accounting might still prove useful. (1981: 367-8)

Day and Gaido (2012: 17) state that Heinrich Cunow pioneered the use of the concept of finance capital. In Trade-Agreements and Imperialist Expansion Policy (May 1900), Cunow wrote (D&G 2012: 186, 190) that “even if industrial interests are not totally unconcerned, they play a completely subordinate role. The driving force of contemporary world and expansionist policy is the need for activity and profit on the part of money-capital”. He said that domestic industry had very little interest in the acquisition of colonies. However “the situation was different in the case of money-capital seeking profitable investments, which is actually the real driving force behind imperialist expansion efforts”. For capital seeking higher profits in foreign undertakings than in domestic ones, “it is by no means immaterial to whom this or that territory belongs, because political rule is of decisive significance for the feasibility and security of investments”.

Day and Gaido also credit Parvus with the development of this version of finance capital. In his pamphlet Colonies and Capitalism in the Twentieth Century (June 1907), Parvus wrote:
The concentration of money-capital in the banks led to the concentration of banks. Industrial concentration grew out of technical development and capitalist competition, but it was significantly encouraged by the concentration of money-capital – in the banks as well as in individual hands. In the cartels and syndicates, we see a concentration of industrial capital that partly goes beyond the technical concentration of enterprises and partly presupposes it. On the other hand, the barriers between purely monetary capital and industrial capital have fallen down: the banks own shares and financial obligations of industrial enterprises, which in turn, own shares of the banks and have members on their supervisory boards. The whole system is ruled by industrial cartels and banking syndicates. The capitalist state appears as a third partner whose budget represents the greatest concentration of industrial as well as monetary capital. Through the technical transformations of the modern military and the public debt, the state is intimately bound up with private capital. (D&G 2012: 345)

These contributions were undoubtedly important, though they book somewhat plays down the contribution of Kautsky to the concept of finance capital. Day and Gaido include an earlier article by Kautsky, which stated (D&G 2012: 159) that “high finance, which has the greatest interest in imperialist policy, is also stronger”. The collection also contains Kautsky’s Germany, England and World Policy (8 and 10 May 1900), in which he wrote (D&G 2012: 172, 175): “Finance capital, much more than industry, finds satisfaction in acquiring colonies” and that “the only beneficiary from the founding of colonies, from the modern expansion policy, is finance capital, which draws further advantages from the failings of colonial governments and the consequent expenditures and loans for colonial purposes.”

However Kautsky had begun to synthesise what became the dominant theory of imperialism linked to finance capital and the export of capital even earlier. In Past and Recent Colonial Policy (1898), he wrote (2013: 78, 81, 83) that “finance capital pushes for the acquisition of colonies, where it can take care of its business, unregulated yet protected by the state… High finance drove France to Tunis, Tonkin and Madagascar, to the cheers of the army and the navy… For almost all colonising nations in Europe, Africa has become a point of weakness, not strength. In African colonial policy, high finance feathers its own nest”.

Colonial policy

In A History of Marxian Economics, Howard and King (1989: 92-3) argued that Kautsky's writings contain the germ of every significant view expressed by Marxist theorists before 1914. In an article Tongking (1884), Kautsky argued that colonies were a prerequisite for capitalist expansion, and that Germany’s lack of them was one of the main reasons why it had failed to industrialise at the same time as Britain. Colonial possessions had been essential for the primitive accumulation of capital and as a source of markets. Workers received in wages less than the value of their product and capitalist consumption was insufficient to fill the gap. Hence capitalists must find “a market outside the sphere of their own production”, which could offer the prospect of continuous growth. Accordingly, “as a sales market the colonies have become a condition of existence for capitalism”. For Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (LCW 22: 241-2), colonisation and the need to export capital arose from the fact that “in a few countries capitalism has become ‘overripe’ and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for ‘profitable’ investment”.

Limits of Day and Gaido’s selection

Day and Gaido’s selection contains many gems previously inaccessible to all but the most linguistically proficient. The articles by Max Beer and Paul Louis, the early analyses of Hilferding and Bauer, along with the later contributions of Lensch, Radek and Anton Pannekoek all had merit and deserve to be acknowledged.

It is a pity Day and Gaido only translated parts of Parvus’ pamphlet on colonial policy, given its apparent importance, preceding almost all the later protagonists. The biggest hiatus however is Kautsky’s work. Even if we discount his 1880s essays as restricted to colonialism rather than turn of the century inter-imperialist rivalry, it is disappointing that Kautsky’s Past and Recent Colonial Policy (1898) was not included (it has since been translated by the Weekly Worker). Similarly, according to Howard and King (1989: 94), Kautsky’s pamphlet Handelspolitik and Sozialdemokratie (Commercial Policy and Social Democracy) first published in 1901 and reissued ten years later “anticipated Hilferding and Lenin by pointing to the connection between the formation of cartels, industrial capitalists' demands for protection, and the growth of militarism which threatened to spark off a world war”. Rectifying such gaps would contribute further to our understanding of the roots of Marxist theories of imperialism.

Kautsky’s role underplayed, despite ample evidence in the book and in other articles of his leading role. In his review of Hilferding’s Finance Capital (June 1910), Otto Bauer stated (D&G 2012: 422) that the instigators were Kautsky, Parvus, Cunow, Hilferding and himself. Similarly Radek stated in 1912 (D&G 2012: 544) that “the common foundations of the whole imperialism policy of capitalism became clear to the party, and even five years ago its main features were properly recognised by Kautsky and Parvus” and were then “deepened by Hilferding and Otto Bauer”. In his book Socialism and Colonial Policy (1907), Kautsky listed some of the articles he had written on colonial policy in the 1880s, as well as a range of pieces around the turn of the century. Actually Lenin uses Hobson’s work as a mask for the earlier Kautsky, in order to castigate the “renegade” who rationalised the capitulation of the SPD leaders in the face of war.

A further weakness in downplaying Kautsky’s role is to homogenise what was a heterogeneous, contradictory and shifting sense of imperialism even among the Marxist writers before the First World War. A range of authors offered shifting explanations of the economic drives. Some argued that the lack of consumption demand in the advanced states drove firms there to sell or invest overseas. Others believed that foreign trade and investment arrested, at least temporarily, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Some emphasised the industrial forces driving colonisation in pursuit of raw materials and markets, while others foreground investment by factions of financial capital, who required stable states to guarantee their contracts. Finally, some Marxists believed colonies were essential to western capitalism and without them, the system would eventually collapse, while others argued that imperialism and colonisation were the product of reactionary classes and not necessary for capitalism at all.

The book has an implicit, teleological thread running through it, which assumes Lenin’s perspective was right and unproblematic at the time (and perhaps since). That is most evident in the (related) discussion of the United States of Europe slogan and Kautsky’s account of ultra-imperialism. Day and Gaido make too much of Luxemburg’s opposition to the demand for a United States of Europe. Their selection (D&G 2012: 108, 442, 453, 884) shows it was widely accepted before the conflict broke out, including by Lenin. Max Beer advocated it in Modern English Imperialism (November 1897), as did Parvus in Colonial Policy and the Collapse (1907), as the book states, along with Kautsky (1911) and Trotsky during the war. Otto Bauer had also advocated the slogan in The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy (1907).

But again, Kautsky was probably the pioneer. As early as 1892 in The Class Struggle, he wrote: “There are but two ways out of this intolerable state of things: either a gigantic war that shall destroy some of the existing European states, or a union of them all in a federation.” This was not particularly challenged at the time or prior to the war, other than be Luxemburg, and then on similar grounds to her erroneous rejection of the right of nations to self-determination. This is another unfortunate case of reading back later disagreements into earlier periods.

It makes even less sense today. Speculation about a United States of Europe or an ultra-imperialist alliance of the most powerful states may well have been wishful thinking during the First World War. But in light of the subsequent century and the actual developments, when both of this demands have in fact (albeit partially, with contradictions and in the absence of socialism) been progressed to a significant degree by the bourgeoisie, it seems somewhat perverse to mechanically maintain hostility to accomplished facts.

Similarly, there are a number of loose-ends, by-ways and under explored insights in Lenin’s book that are barely visible from the selection in the book but have a greater bearing on subsequent developments. Lenin argued (LCW 22: 300, 274, 259) that “it would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism”. On the whole, he believed capitalism was “growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general”. It was also “growing with the greatest rapidity in the colonies and in overseas countries. Among the latter, new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan)”. Alongside the unevenness, Lenin also referred to combined development, what he called the “process of levelling the world”.

An even more fertile insight is Lenin’s reference (LCW 22: 263) to “transitional forms of state dependence”, outside of the binary division between the two main groups of countries, those owning colonies, and the colonies themselves. Such states were politically formally independent, but were nevertheless “enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence”. The three forms mentioned were semi-colonies (like China), another type was provided by Argentina, and still another by Portugal. Such arrangements were far more characteristic of specifically capitalist forms of imperialism and with those utilised by the USA as it became the dominant hegemonic state, particularly after World War Two.

Critique of Lenin

Day and Gaido’s book, together with other writings of Kautsky, Hilferding, Bauer and others, shows definitively that Lenin’s account of imperialism was neither original nor innovative. However it had many virtues, summing up the combined wisdom Marxists had accumulated at the time. It was a coherently argued synthesis of significant trends in the world economy, which went a long way to explaining the drives that led the major powers into imperialist war. It identified how the enemy (capital and its states) had behaved and would behave in the near future. It explained how self-defeating the war would be for the ruling class and for those in the labour movement that backed them.

It charted a course for the labour movement, to renew the ties of international solidarity and to organise itself afresh in a new international organisation built on sturdier principles than the Second International. In particular it highlighted the type of internationalism required of labour movements in advanced capitalist states. In particular they would have to champion the rights of colonial peoples and other nations to self-determination, both as a means of weakening the ruling class of the West but also liberating powerful social forces across the globe.

Lenin’s original analysis of imperialism, which synthesised the best of Second International geopolitics, was a more-or-less adequate assessment of the First World War conjuncture. However in many respects it was flawed even for its time: its conflation of finance capital with the merger of bank and industrial capital, or as purely speculative or rentier; the derivation of the drive of capital to export abroad from a supposed ‘glut’ or absence of investment opportunities in the home country; its artificial dichotomy of earlier free-trade, competitive capitalism from the later imperialist, monopoly capitalism; the elevation of the conjuncture becoming the last stage of capitalism; the instrumental treatment of the state as simply a reflex of particular, financial interests; the premise of the working class immiseration as an explanation for imperialism; and the conception of a labour aristocracy to explain the collapse of socialist parties into chauvinism. Carried over mechanically to the present, these conceptions are no guide to working class action.

And the commonly accepted version of Lenin has much worse problems than his original analysis. Since Lenin's 1916 pamphlet contains essentially no discussion of the economic effects of imperialism in subordinate countries (because that was not Lenin's focus in that particular text), scattered phrases and offhand polemical swipes from Lenin have been reconstructed to theorise imperialism as a simple process of plunder rather than a species of capitalist development. The end result is to conflate “imperialism” with whatever advanced capitalist states do internationally. There is of course no lack of real evidence that simple plunder is part of the routine international activity of advanced capitalist states: the question is whether that is all there is to it, and whether plunder is a feature uniquely of advanced capitalist states rather than of all capitalist states. In the cod-Leninist discourse, “imperialism” (meaning advanced capitalism) is opposed not so much because it is capitalist as because it is advanced.

Lenin cannibalised

Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is still regarded by many on the Marxist left as a sacrosanct text. It became so only as a tool fashioned by the Stalinists to justify the twists and turns in their foreign and domestic policy. Thus the notion that capitalist development is simply hindered or (in the language of the time) “retarded” in the colonial and semi-colonial countries was laid down at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, as part of a political answer to the defeat suffered in China at the hands of Stalinists (and justly criticised by Trotsky).

Lenin’s book, and in particular the notion wrenched from it of “uneven development” was used to justify Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country. In his terrible Short Course textbook (1938), Stalin laid down that “the victory of Socialism was possible first in several countries or even in one country, taken singly, that the simultaneous victory of Socialism in all countries was impossible owing to the unevenness of development of capitalism…”. Stalin wrote:
This theory fundamentally differed from the view current among the Marxists in the period of pre-imperialist capitalism, when they held that the victory of Socialism in one separate country was impossible, and that it would take place simultaneously in all the civilized countries. On the basis of the facts concerning imperialist capitalism set forth in his remarkable book, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin displaced this view as obsolete and set forth a new theory, from which it follows that the simultaneous victory of Socialism in all countries is impossible, while the victory of Socialism in one capitalist country, taken singly, is possible.

Such cannibalisation of Lenin was carried to particularly farcical lengths in a volume of the book edited by Varga and Mendelsohn, which adduced the “Lenin-Stalin” theory of imperialism by piling up more recent empirical data to “prove” Lenin had foreseen accurately the two decades after he wrote the book.


Imperialism is, in essence, a strategy available to states to resolve crises and obstacles to the circuit of capital. It is not a stage of capitalism, nor a necessary policy for all states at all times. Rather it’s specifically capitalist form consists of the imposition of the “dull compulsion of capitalist economic relations” through the actions of capitals and bourgeois states (representing capital-in-general), including through military force, international agreements, financial investment, loans or debt, all with particular institutional forms. It is not reducible to territorial invasion or colonial aggrandisement, though it does rely on the intervention of bourgeois states.

Modern capitalist imperialism, under the superintendence of the US and with its own geometry of capital flows, financial and inter-state relations, is very different from the world of 1914. Marxists today can learn from the method of our predecessors, while taking a critical approach to their texts, which were inevitably bound by their spatial-temporary context. We need to understand imperialism today in order for the working class to oppose it independently on its own terms. What is required is an unflinching realism, not self-deception. Classic texts – however insightful – cannot substitute for a rounded assessment of today’s conditions.

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