Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 22, 2008

Lenin’s “Imperialism” in context

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

(This was written for the Introduction to Marxism class mailing list on yahoo.)

Over the next week or so we will be taking a close look at Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm), but I would like to start off with this introductory article to put the work into context. There has been a unfortunate tendency to view Lenin’s writings as etched in granite, when that is exactly the wrong approach. This tendency obviously is rooted in his deification in the USSR, with the mausoleum, the ritual invocation of his texts and all the other behavior suggestive of organized religion rather than a revolutionary movement.

Even among Marxists, who have never had any sympathies for Kremlin-style sanctification, there is still a tendency to misunderstand Lenin’s goal in writing something like “Imperialism”. Since so much of the analysis in the book no longer seems to apply to our contemporary world, especially monopoly capitalism leading inexorably to world war, some have concluded that it is of limited value.

But if you understand that Lenin was simply dealing with conjunctural issues, then it makes a lot more sense. Lenin never wrote for the ages. He was always writing for a particular time and a particular place. “Imperialism” was prompted by the outbreak of WWI. He was trying to explain why the imperialist system of his day led to that war. He was also trying to debunk Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” that viewed the development of cartels as reducing the tendency toward war. But Lenin never had the intention of writing some kind of handbook that would be a guide to understanding future wars.

And, most importantly, he was not trying to explain the relationship between “core” countries like Great Britain and “peripheral” countries like India or China. In the debates over the Brenner thesis that began to take place in the 1970s and continue until this day, you hear repeated complaints about Lenin’s irrelevance. Those complaints can only emerge by misunderstanding what Lenin was trying to do. This is obviously a function of Marxist academics projecting onto Lenin their own scholastic habits of thought. The average Marxist academic is always thinking in terms of permanent contributions to the literature, while Lenin never thought that much beyond the immediate tasks facing the revolutionary movement.

The same thing can be said for “What is to be Done”, which “Marxist-Leninist” groups regard as a handbook for the ages, when in fact it was strictly meant for resolving problems facing the socialist movement in Czarist Russia and nothing more. Lenin once said that within five years of its appearance, its conclusions were no longer valid. And he was right.

Within a year after the start of the war and a year before he wrote “Imperialism”, Lenin was trying to identify the character of the period. If Marx and Engels theorized capitalism as a force of progress in 1848, when they wrote the Communist Manifesto, what would be the proper outlook now that the world war had started? In 1915, Lenin wrote an article titled “Under a False Flag” that decisively broke with the framework of the CM. No longer was the bourgeoisie forging ahead as a kind of revolutionary class. Instead it was to the 20th century that the feudal aristocracy was to the 17th century:

The place of the struggle of a rising capital, striving towards national liberation from feudalism, has been taken by the struggle waged against the new forces by the most reactionary finance capital, the struggle of a force that has exhausted and outlived itself and is heading downward towards decay. The bourgeois-national state framework, which in the first epoch was the mainstay of the development of the productive forces of a humanity that was liberating itself from feudalism, has now, in the third epoch, become a hindrance to the further development of the productive forces. From a rising and progressive class the bourgeoisie has turned into a declining, decadent, and reactionary class.


Although many Marxists paid lip-service to this idea of the capitalist class being reactionary, the socialist parliamentarians found all sorts of excuses to defend their own bourgeoisie in 1914. In a speech to the Reichstag backing war credits, the chief socialist deputy Hugo Haase said:

We must ward off this danger, [we must] protect our civilization and the independence of our own country. Thus, we carry out what we have always emphasized: in the hour of danger, we shall not desert the Fatherland. In saying this, we feel ourselves in accord with the International, which has always recognized every nation’s right to national independence and self-defense, just as we agree with it in condemning any war of aggression or conquest. We demand that as soon as the aim of security has been achieved and our opponents are disposed to make peace this war shall be brought to an end by a peace treaty that makes friendship with our neighbors possible. We ask this not only in the interest of national solidarity, for which we have always contended, but also in the interest of the German people. We hope that the cruel experience of suffering in this war will awaken in many millions of people the abhorrence of war and will win them over to the ideals of socialism and world peace.


Lenin sought an explanation not only for Haase’s behavior, but for the first world war in history. There had been wars in Europe before, but nothing quite like what was happening in 1914. The two phenomena were related. An extended period of peace and prosperity, accountable to some extent by the development of empire, had fostered illusions on the left that capitalism remained a progressive force. Even as the outbreak of war had shattered such illusions, the reformists were still not ready to make a clean break with their own bourgeoisie. Lenin wrote “Imperialism” in order to mobilize the leftwing of the world socialist movement against the traitors in their midst and not in order to provide some universal guide to the world economy.

The biggest challenge was to undermine Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” that no doubt had a disorienting effect on the movement. While the growing wealth and prestige of the socialist parliamentarians and trade union officials led them to think like the ruling class, in the same manner as AFL-CIO bureaucrats playing golf with the bosses, they still needed the kind of ideological cover that Kautsky’s theory provided. In April 1914, just before the war began, Kautsky wrote an article for Die Neue Zeit, the socialist newspaper, that stated:

“The subsiding of the Protectionist movement in Britain, the lowering of tariffs in America; the trend towards disarmament; the rapid decline in the export of capital from France and Germany in the years immediately preceding the war; finally, the growing international interweaving between the various cliques of finance capital—all this has caused me to consider whether the present imperialist policy cannot be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital. Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question…”

Despite the hedging, it was clear that Kautsky saw a new, more peaceful world emerging out of the cartelization taking place in Europe and elsewhere. A year later in 1915, after the war had become a full-scale conflagration, Lenin took on the concept of “ultra-imperialism” in “The Collapse of the Second International” and connected the dotted lines between Kautsky’s false economic projections and the treachery of the socialist parliamentarians:

From the necessity of imperialism the Left wing deduces the necessity of revolutionary action. The “theory of ultra-imperialism”, however, serves Kautsky as a means to justify the opportunists, to present the situation in such a light as to create the impression that they have not gone over to the bourgeoisie but simply “do not believe” that socialism can arrive immediately, and expect that a new “era” of disarmament and lasting peace “may be” ushered in. This “theory” boils down, and can only boil down, to the following: Kautsky is exploiting the hope for a new peaceful era of capitalisms as to justify the adhesion of the opportunists and the official Social-Democratic parties to the bourgeoisie, and their rejection of revolutionary, i.e., proletarian, tactics in the present stormy era, this despite the solemn declarations of the Basle resolution!


The economics of Lenin’s book are derived from a number of sources, most especially Bukharin and Hilferding, who were Marxists, and J.A. Hobson, a British progressive. (His great-grandson, John M. Hobson, has also written a very good book, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation”.)

Although Lenin had sharp disagreements with Bukharin’s “Imperialism and World Economy”, which can be read in its entirety at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial/index.htm, he still saw it as an excellent corrective to the sort of illusions in imperialism that Kautsky’s theories represent, as should be obvious from his 1915 introduction:

The scientific significance of N.I. Bukharin’s work consists particularly in this, that he examines the fundamental facts of world economy relating to imperialism as a whole, as a definite stage in the growth of most highly developed capitalism. There had been an epoch of a comparatively “peaceful capitalism,” when it had overcome feudalism in the advanced countries of Europe and was in a position to develop comparatively tranquilly and harmoniously, “peacefully” spreading over tremendous areas of still unoccupied lands, and of countries not yet finally drawn into the capitalist vortex. Of course, even in that epoch, marked approximately by the years 1871 and 1914, “peaceful” capitalism created conditions of life that were very far from being really peaceful both in the military and in a general class sense. For nine-tenths of the population of the advanced countries, for hundreds of millions of peoples in the colonies and in the backward countries this epoch was not one of “peace” but of oppression, tortures, horrors that seemed the more terrifying since they appeared to be without end. This epoch has gone forever. It has been followed by a new epoch, comparatively more impetuous, full of abrupt changes, catastrophes, conflicts, an epoch that no longer appears to the toiling masses as horror without end but is an end full of horrors.

Turning specifically to Kautsky, Lenin writes:

In this tendency to evade the imperialism that is here and to pass in dreams to an epoch of “ultra-imperialism,” of which we do not even know whether it is realisable, there is not a grain of Marxism. In this reasoning Marxism is admitted for that “new phase of capitalism,” the realisability of which its inventor himself fails to vouch for, whereas for the present, the existing phase of capitalism, he offers us not Marxism, but a petty-bourgeois and deeply reactionary tendency to soften contradictions. There was a time when Kautsky promised to be a Marxist in the coming restless and catastrophic epoch, which he was compelled to foresee and definitely recognise when writing his work in 1909 about the coming war. Now, when it has become absolutely clear that that epoch has arrived, Kautsky again only promises to be a Marxist in the coming epoch of ultra-imperialism, of which he does not know whether it will arrive! In other words, we have any number of his promises to be a Marxist some time in another epoch, not under present conditions, not at this moment. For to-morrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred.

Unfortunately, there are only 3 chapters of Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development” on the Marxist Internet Archives (you can see how much of an influence it was on Lenin, just from the title.) As was the case with Lenin’s book, Hilferding’s study was very much of a time and place. For example, Hilferding wrote that the Anglo-American stock-market system was on the way out, but that has not panned out. This does not invalidate Hilferding’s analysis so long as it is understood to be very much geared to a specific time and place.

Fortunately, J.A. Hobson’s 1902 “Imperialism, a Study” is online at MIA and I strongly recommend giving it a look. Despite the fact that Lenin’s book is narrowly focused on the clash between one core imperialist power and another, Hobson devoted quite a few words to the conditions of “peripheral” countries and as the title to chapter Chapter IV, “Imperialism and the Lower Races”, would indicate, they are not very good. For example:

The real issue is whether, and under what circumstances, it is justifiable for Western nations to use compulsory government for the control and education in the arts of industrial and political civilisation of the inhabitants of tropical countries and other so-called lower races. Because Rhodesian mine-owners or Cuban sugar-growers stimulate the British or American Government to Imperialism by parading motives and results which do not really concern them, it does not follow that these motives under proper guidance are unsound, or that the results are undesirable.

There is nothing unworthy, quite the contrary, in the notion that nations which, through a more stimulative environment, have advanced further in certain arts of industry, politics, or morals, should communicate these to nations which from their circumstances were more backward, so as to aid them in developing alike the material resources of their land and the human resources of their people. Nor is it clear that in this work some “inducement, stimulus, or pressure” (to quote a well-known phrase), or in a single word, “compulsion,” is wholly illegitimate. Force is itself no remedy, coercion is not education, but it may be a prior condition to the operation of educative forces. Those, at any rate, who assign any place to force in the education or the political government of individuals in a nation can hardly deny that the same instrument may find a place in the civilisation of backward by progressive nations.


Needless to say, theories of imperialism from the Marxist left have never, or nearly never, been put forward in such horribly racist and paternalistic terms. One of the things we will be trying to identify as we pursue our study of imperialism is how Marxism eventually takes the side of the “Rhodesian mine-owners or Cuban sugar-growers” explicitly. There is an implicit identification in Lenin’s book, but it would be up to others–starting with Rosa Luxmberg–to make those ties explict.

Finally, I would raise these questions for consideration as we plunge into a close reading of Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”:

1. Whatever happened to World Wars? Did the seeming ability of capitalism to stave off both worldwide economic depression and world war reflect to some extent that Kautsky was on to something? Are we living in something like “ultra-imperialism” today, a point that is made in Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”?

2. What relationship does the theory of imperialism have to do with Karl Marx’s writings on capital? Is there a need for another explanation for the world system today other than in the categories found in Marx’s value theory?

3. Does the spectacular growth of capitalism in China and India suggest that Lenin was premature when he wrote that “the bourgeoisie has turned into a declining, decadent, and reactionary class”? What kind of decadent class would permit the rapid industrialization of the largest nation on earth?


  1. […] was written for the Introduction to Marxism class mailing list on yahoo. Over the next week or shttps://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/06/22/lenins-imperialism-in-context/Stephen King: Pay restraint? Punk economics Independent Are we heading back to the 1970s? It all […]

    Pingback by guide system — June 24, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  2. Louis’ defence of Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ makes the correct and crucial point that capitalism has outlived its historically progressive character. This issue keeps on resurfacing. In Britain, the left is largely divided between those who argue that the EU is ‘historically progressive’, and those who argue that it is a reactionary entity which should be broken-up. In my recent criticism of the Revolutionary Communist Group, I take issue with both factions. (See the ‘Reviews’ section of my site http://www.rosclar.webspace.virginmedia.com ) Applying Lenin’s writings to post-WWII conditions, I show that the EU is now a reality, but reactionary to the core. European socialists must struggle on a European-wide basis, but without succumbing to the anti-Leninist view that the European bourgeoisie has a ‘historically progressive’ role to fulfil.

    Comment by Alec Abbott — April 1, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  3. Read Alec Abbott’s criticism of the Revolutionary Communist Group on Europe. He seems to share RCG’s perspective of a possible war between Europe and USA. But what we can see is the possibility of the economic rivalry between USA and China ending up in military conflict between them and Europe in the middle.

    Comment by Jojo — June 3, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

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