By Greg Godels

March 21, 2022


V. I. Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism, remains the leading elaboration of the concept of imperialism for Marxists. It is the starting point for any discussion of the global dynamics of capitalism from the late- nineteenth century until today.

While capitalism has taken twists, turns, and even detours since Lenin’s time, the destination remains the same– the exploitation of labor for profit, wherever workers and resources can be found. Capitalism’s evolution, concentration, growth, and uneven development are the necessary conditions for imperialism. Imperialism respects no social or political borders.

The pamphlet, Imperialism, captures the features of modern– monopoly– capitalism. Yet, many seemingly fail to read Lenin’s subtitle: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (International Publishers, 2004). They fail to grasp that Lenin is writing about, elaborating on, explaining a particular stage of capitalism, not characteristics of individual states. He is describing an historically bound period, a period in which capital in its mature, financially organized, monopoly form comes to dominate the entire world through the conquests of the “great powers.” In Lenin’s words:

…we must say that the characteristic feature of this period [imperialism] is the final partition of the globe– not in the sense that a new partition is impossible– on the contrary, new partitions are possible and inevitable– but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet… in the future only redivision is possible… (p. 76)

As Marx’s method demands, Lenin is addressing processes, tendencies– in this case, a tendency for capital to not merely dominate nation-states, even regions, but the entire world. It is the completing or redividing that defines imperialism as an historical era, a process that– through competition– creates ever-changing alliances and blocs. In the final analysis, it is intense competition carried beyond national borders that may ultimately be settled with arms, by wars.

These processes that Lenin associates with imperialism occur unevenly and in different forms. After the Bolshevik revolution, monopoly capitalism’s domination of the entire world was interrupted by the existence of the Soviet Union. An anti-Communist crusade on the part of the great capitalist powers ensued, but the underlying process remained the same: delivering every worker and peasant into the arms of monopoly and finance capital.

Again, after World War II, the growing power and influence of a socialist community proved decisive in the liberation of nearly all of what were once colonies of the great powers. New “independent” countries sprung up in Asia and Africa. But the underlying tendency identified by Lenin expressed itself again through a new expression of imperialism: neo-colonialism.

Neo-colonialism maintained the old economic advantages for the dominating great powers, but without the burden of occupation and administration. “Spheres of influence,” a more benign term coined in the nineteenth century, captured the tendency for capital to penetrate every nook and cranny of the world, while masking the raw subjugation implied by “colonies.” Thus, a dependent “independence” was born, cemented more by economic necessity than naked coercion.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the most viable economic scaffold for independent development outside of the imperialist system was eliminated. Western commentators vigorously celebrated the prospect of unimpeded capitalist penetration to all countries without exception. Huge labor markets entered the capitalist system from Eastern Europe and from Asia, dramatically lowering the costs of goods, services, and most importantly, labor.

Capitalism got a second wind, enjoying higher, more stable growth and profit rates.

Capitalists scurried to pry open new markets, remove impediments to trade, accelerate foreign investments, secure mutuality in a manner unseen since the early decades of modern imperialism. Indeed, the later decades of the twentieth century resembled that earlier period of classical imperialism to many Marxists.

Ironically, capitalist triumphalism served to underscore the timelessness of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Once again, the global economy was dominated by the mobilization of great powers, seeking economic advantage (exploitation) and spheres of influence.

With the US, like Great Britain in its nineteenth-century glory, claiming the right to determine the terms of economic activity and trade for the world, a period of cooperation and peace was foreseen. On this view, the capitalist economic links and mutual dependency would serve to cement social and political relations and insure stability in international relations. A new world order would be welcomed by all and guaranteed by the US.

Those few in the West familiar with early-twentieth-century Marxist revisionism noted that this fiction was remarkably similar to Karl Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism,” a theory that the big powers would divide the world and settle the matter between themselves without friction or conflict.

Lenin, much earlier, mocked this idea. When he wrote Imperialism in 1916, he saw the catastrophe of World War I as the decisive refutation of the idea of stable imperialism or imperialist equilibrium.

Most of the Western, non-Communist left, alienated from Leninism and blind to historical parallels, scrambled to make sense of the “new” post-Soviet era, failing to connect it with the classical imperialism described by Lenin and his adherents. At a loss for a theory, they cryptically coined the vacuous term “globalization” to describe monopoly capital’s celebratory lap.

Post-Marxist, post-Fordist, Postmodernist theories abounded. Some academic “Marxists” thought the late twentieth century ushered in an era of the withering of the nation-state. Others thought we were seeing the rise of a supra-state, Empire, a totalizing entity sprung on the world like an alien invader.

The celebration of capitalist triumphalism came soon to an abrupt end with the return of constant, near-endless wars and frequent political and economic crises. Along with the exit of “benign” imperialism, leftist theoretical fantasies faded.

Global trade shrank in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 crisis and tensions between capitalist countries grew over who would gain and who would bear the burden of a sluggish or stagnant global economy. Centrifugal forces in the EU split the EU from north to south.

Germany dominates EU policies, imposing one-size-fits-all austerity on diverse, unevenly developed states.

PRC’s impressive entry into the global capitalist economy and subsequent remarkable growth threatens US hegemony, creating intensified competition and tensions.

The US has sought to quell independent development outside of the global hierarchies, using surrogates, war-by-other-means: sanctions, boycotts, and tariffs. And with exceedingly obstinate resistance, the US engages its coup-fomenting apparatus or unleashes its military to shepherd those who dare to escape from the US constructed imperialist corral.

“New” great powers replaced or changed places with the line-up active in Lenin’s time. The EU, despite its member differences, scraped together an imperialist agenda under the US stewardship of NATO, as witnessed by its participation in the dismantling of Yugoslavia and its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Saudi Arabia, infused with petro-dollars, seeks to enforce its influence over its neighbors, demonstrated most recently by its bloody war in Yemen.

Even tiny Israel participates in the imperialist scramble by annexing territory from its neighbors and from the Palestinian people.

Where there is capitalism, there is a drive for territory, resources, labor, or influence.

As in Lenin’s time, countries fit into this chaotic, unstable cauldron in different ways– sometimes as greater powers, sometimes as lesser powers or victims. Competition– promotion or protection of economic interests– stir this cauldron.

In Imperialism, Lenin does not identify countries as “imperialist,” without qualification. It would violate his steadfast recognition of uneven development to do so. In Chapter VI, “The Division of the World Among the Great Powers”, he simply identifies those countries (the big six!) that have been most active between 1876 and 1914 in acquiring colonies.

He can be viewed as establishing an imperialist hierarchy, but this too can be misleading. Lenin, always attentive to historical contingency and shifting social forces, goes to some length to describe the variety within the “great powers”:

… great differences still remain; and among the six powers, we see, firstly, young capitalist powers (America, Germany, Japan) which progressed very rapidly; secondly, countries with an old capitalist development (France and Great Britain) … and, thirdly, a country (Russia) which is economically most backward, in which modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations. (p.81) [my emphasis]

Lenin leaves no doubt that a country (czarist Russia) can be a big player in the imperialist scramble for colonies (or spheres of influence) while remaining a less-than-robust capitalist country with remnants or foretells of other (non-capitalist) economic formations or features. In other words, their place in the imperialist system is not strictly determined by their place in the capitalist hierarchy– they can be a bright young capitalist star or a decadent, old star clinging to a brilliant past, while still playing a decisive role in the empire games.

It would be wrong, as some have argued, to mechanically take Lenin’s “five essential features” found in Chapter VII as giving a criterion for admission into some kind of imperialist club. It could not be clearer that “Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism” is not about the status of individual countries in the imperialist system, but about imperialism as a whole.

Capital concentration, the merging of financial capital with industrial capital, the export of capital, international monopolies, and the territorial division of the world (spheres of interest) are features of the imperialist stage of capitalism, and not necessarily any individual country in the imperial project.

Countries– small or large, developed or backward, endowed or impoverished– play different roles at different times in the march of imperialism.

Whether it is czarist Russia (a mix of emerging capitalist relations in urban areas and only weakly exited feudal relations in rural areas) or Putin’s Russia (a stunted industrial capitalist economy, but with enormous essential resources), the capacity to participate in great power activity, to enlarge or protect spheres of interest, to confront other great powers is an unquestionable reality. To hide this reality– this active participation in the conflict with other capitalist countries– behind the facade that Russia does not meet the “five essential features” characterizing the imperialist era is sheer sophistry.

Lenin is clear. Apart from the “great powers” are a host of countries whose “participation” in the imperialist system is complex. The dialectics of uneven development produces no ideal types.

 Lenin speaks of smaller players in the imperialist system that have diverse relations with imperialism. Some have their own colonies but “retain their colonies only because of the conflicting interests, frictions etc., among the big powers…” They risk losing their colonies to a new colonial “share-out” to the big powers (page 81).

He also recognizes “semi-colonies” like Persia, China, and Turkey which were, in his time, nominally independent, but exploited profoundly by the big powers. He refers to them as “examples of transitional forms which are to be found in all spheres of nature and society”; they are in “a middle stage” (page 81). Today, all three have transitioned into bigger players in the capitalist firmament.

In his discussion of Argentina and Portugal, Lenin anticipates the mid-twentieth century Marxist concept of neo-colonialism, discussing how independent countries can be tied into the imperialist nexus as financially dependent or as a protectorate (page 85-86).

Thus, Lenin shows, with great nuance, that imperialism is a dynamic global system, constantly in motion, and that countries participate in the system in many ways. The imperatives of monopoly capital enjoin all capitalist countries to seek advantage in the competition for resources, markets, and labor. In this struggle, there are those that become the biggest powers and dominate others through the exercise of their power. Lesser powers lose to the most powerful, but may aspire to challenge, nonetheless, or exercise their power over the less powerful. The system tends to engage all economies in relations of dominance and dependence. Competition breeds aggression and war.

Lenin derisively notes the petty-bourgeois reformist tendency to separate imperialism from capitalism, to deny “the indissoluble bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore, between imperialism and the very foundations of capitalism…” Without recognizing capitalism as the source of imperialism and war, anti-imperialism remains “a ‘pious wish’”. (page 111).

It might be useful to summarize this discussion by showing how a closer read of Imperialism might shed light on twenty-first century imperialism.

  1. Twenty-first-century imperialism shares more features with the imperialism of Lenin’s time than differences.

  2. Imperialism constitutes a system of global competition for resources, markets, and labor-power that pits capitalist countries against one another to establish spheres of interest and a better field of operation for its monopolies. The struggle instigated by the US for dominance of Ukraine involves monopolies in the energy sector and the weapons industry, as well as an attempt to secure and expand existing spheres of interest. While the US is the more powerful great power and the instigator, Russia is an aspiring great power drawn into invading a “transitional” country– Ukraine. With successive corrupt governments, Ukraine has, since its independence, longed to be a protectorate of a great power, whoever offers the best bargain. At stake are the interests of the various ruling classes.

  3. The argument popular among Western leftists over whether Russia is an imperialist country or an anti-imperialist country opposing US and EU imperialism is a sterile, scholastic debate. From a Leninist perspective, today’s Russia, like czarist Russia, is a nascent capitalist country vying for a position as a leading force in the scramble for markets and spheres of interest. Russia’s engagements in defiance of US imperialism– in Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.– is just that: defiance of a rival. That powerful rivals are aggressively threatening Russia’s ambitions is notable, but of little bearing on the interests of the Russian, Ukrainian, US, or EU working class.

  4. In fact, the Ukraine war’s “progress” has– as a Leninist perspective would predict– dramatically and negatively affected the fate of workers globally. Millions of lives have been disrupted, harmed, or ended.

  5. The demise of the Soviet Union has freed the hand of imperialism, producing a world substantially congruent with early-twentieth-century imperialism. Some of the players have changed or assumed different roles, but the logic of great-power imperialism is intact. Those of us who defend the historical role of the Soviet Union must dispel any remaining romantic attachment to today’s Russia. It participates in the global system of imperialism as a great power.

  6. As Lenin warns, the attempt to separate imperialism from its capitalist roots destines anti-imperialism to ineffectuality– “petty-bourgeois reformism.” Moralistic anti-imperialism, what Lenin calls “the last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy,” collapses into pacifism– a posture good for the soul, but impotent against the schemes of the great powers. Today’s leftist celebration of a projected “multipolar” capitalist world is a further attempt to separate great-power rivalries from their roots in capitalist– specifically, monopoly– interests. Multipolarity was a feature of imperialism in the prelude to World War I. In fact, the attempt to impose multipolarity upon a world saddled with the domination of the British Empire was a critical factor leading to World War I.

  7. The retreat from Leninism is essentially a retreat from socialism. Desperate, unfounded faith in (a) the efficacy of multipolarity, in (b) the hope of finding a principled anti-imperialist rallying point around an eviscerated, ravaged former socialist state now owned by mega-billionaires, in (c) the miraculous transformation of the existing money-driven, elite-led Western bourgeois parties, and in (d) the belief that the splintered, self-absorbed, multi-interest, multi-identity left can magically coalesce into a force for radical change are all products of a loss of confidence in the socialist project.

The lessons of history and history’s most brilliant teachers are the best guides for the future we want. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.