Jun 6, 2016
One hundred years ago, in the spring of 1916, Lenin wrote a brochure entitled Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. One century later, this work holds its burning importance for the current state of the world.
In the middle of a raging world war, while armies of millions of men slaughtered each other in nameless massacres, while the economies of the most developed countries had become transformed to produce engines of death, while the entire planet was tethered to the carnage of war, Lenin wanted to respond to the question of: “How did we get to this point?”
At the time, just like today, there was no lack of explanations and justifications for the catastrophe. The nationalists of one country accused those of another, while others laid the blame on human nature or on one particularly fanatical terrorist, and others still more reasonable talked of political folly and of the regrettable stubbornness of the governments. Lenin cut to the heart of the matter, explaining that the development of capitalism itself had exacerbated the competition between the different powers and brought about a war over the division of the world.
A century of the development of capitalism had resulted in the division of the world between certain dominant countries and certain industrial and financial groups – the monopolies. The name that Lenin used to describe this new stage of development, which put an end to the capitalism of free competition and ushered in the dominance of finance capital, was “imperialism,” a word that called to mind the power of past empires and their methods of domination. The new period was for him the final stage of capitalism, since it demonstrated the need to go beyond it in order to arrive at a superior form of society, socialism.
Lenin described how a handful of possessors of capital in the wealthiest countries had systematically exploited the planet, adding that on the basis of this economy, wars between competing imperialist powers were inevitable. War was the ultimate method to open markets to goods and capital in search of profit. This is because the market is not infinite, and it is necessary to conquer those of other capitalists in order to expand. In this way, the war of 1914-1918 was the expression of the need for the young German imperialism to make a place for itself at the expense of the old colonial powers like France and Great Britain. Germany defended its right to have colonial slaves, while France and Great Britain defended their right to hold onto theirs.
For Lenin, it was therefore pointless to pretend to fight against war only from a moral point of view, without fighting against capitalism and attempting to make a social revolution. Not only was it necessary to refuse any “sacred alliance” in the name of national defense, but revolutionaries must also work to “transform the imperialist war into a civil war,” which is another way to say what the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht had said: “The main enemy is in our own country.” This separated Lenin and the Bolsheviks from the pacifists and the reformists who believed or pretended to believe that it was possible to return to the era before 1914. Just as Marx had demonstrated that capitalism could not turn back to the time of artisan labor and small property, Lenin demonstrated that imperialism could not turn back to the capitalism of free competition, but that the war must create a revolution.
The ever-greater concentration of capitalist enterprises and the increasing centralization of the imperialist governments characteristic of the early twentieth century were not only sources of wars and oppression. They also showed how the economy tended to become socialized at a global scale and that the straitjacket of private property was becoming obsolete. Maintaining it at all costs could only lead to catastrophe. The whole evolution of capitalism demonstrated the need to expropriate the expropriators, a task that only the working class could accomplish.
Lenin’s book marked a major step forward in the understanding of the events of his time and of the means to break free of them. In fact, in 1917, the war would bring about the Russian revolution, and this led to the foundation of the Communist International, the worldwide party of revolution against the capitalist system. But this brochure, written one century ago, describes the world of today in a more meaningful way than many current articles, and above all, has a clear revolutionary perspective. As Lenin wrote: “The building of railways seems to be a simple, natural, democratic, cultural and civilizing enterprise. … But as a matter of fact, the capitalist threads have converted this railway construction into an instrument for oppressing a thousand million people (in the colonies and semi-colonies), that is, more than half the population of the globe inhabiting the dependent countries, as well as the wage slaves of capital in the ‘civilized’ countries.” It is enough to add oil production to the building of railways and to multiply the number of slaves by five in order to describe the planet in 2016.
Lenin called on not only the working class of the developed capitalist countries to make revolution, but also the oppressed of the whole world, the hundreds of millions of proletarians and poor peasants that imperialism holds in its grasp in its colonies, semi-colonies, and dominated countries. The affirmation of the global nature of the proletarian revolution would come up again several years later in the policy of the workers’ state that came out of the Russian revolution, and in that of the Communist International in its early years. The ceaseless integration of the global market, the development of the working class in new countries, and imperialism’s permanent wars to maintain its order from Kabul to Baghdad confirm today what Lenin wrote then.
Lenin’s descriptions of a more and more parasitic bourgeoisie, living by clipping coupons from the stock market in the shadow of a government totally in its service, still characterize financiers today. The shameless exploitation of the small countries by the large ones that Lenin denounced in 1916 still corresponds to the policies of the ex-colonial countries; or even to the relations between the big powers in the European Union and the smaller ones – or to the foreign policy of the United States toward much of the rest of the world. Lenin showed how the parasitism of the ruling class blocked progress, cultivating militarism, expansionism, reaction, and what he termed the decay of society, illustrated by the carnage that began in 1914. He demonstrated the linkage between all of these social facts, the logic of the development of capital, of war, and of the class struggle, and discovered the approach to social revolution in the world in crisis.
Despite the time that has since passed, despite the transformations of capitalism and the cataclysms that the past century has been full of, Imperialism remains a work of burning importance. To a South African miner, to a Chinese worker, to a Moroccan high school student, or to an unemployed person in South Carolina, this book still says today: “Look at what this world is and what must be done to change it.”