Lenin on Imperialism
[These are two chapters from a longer work that I may never get around
to finishing. The idea was to first sum up Lenin’s views on
imperialism in light of the additional evidence and experience since his
day, as a prelude to a discussion of “globalization” and other
topics. These two chapters were first written around 2001, and expanded
slightly up through 2007. –S.H.]

1. Lenin on Imperialism as a New Stage of Capitalism
As all of us (in my intended audience) are painfully aware, this is
still the imperialist era. So the first thing we have to be able to do
is to correctly conceptualize the basic points about imperialism. This
is necessary for many reasons, including so that we can later come to
terms with the contemporary notion of “globalization”.
The best place to start in discussing imperialism is still Lenin‟s 1916
pamphlet, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. We should
not just assume, however, that whatever Lenin said back then must
necessarily be correct; that is not the scientific approach to Marxism.
Instead, let‟s look at how Lenin characterized or defined imperialism,
and see if we can agree with what he said in light of our nearly a
century of additional experience with the monstrous beast.
Lenin argued that modern imperialism (or capitalist imperialism)
constitutes a new stage in the history of capitalism. The first stage,
he said, was the competitive form of capitalism characterized by
relatively small-scale enterprises, few of which dominated their market.
This is the form of capitalism that mostly existed in Marx‟s day, and
which Marx analyzed in close detail. The newer stage of capitalism,
however, the imperialist stage, is characterized by huge monopolistic or
semi-monopolistic (oligopolistic) corporations. Lenin remarked that
“If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of
imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage
of capitalism.”1
However, the term “monopoly capitalism” can be misleading. The way
it is used by Lenin and virtually all Marxists since his day does not
require that there be only one giant automobile manufacturer that has a
100% monopoly in its markets, or only one single steel producer, and so
forth. In fact, it would have been better if the term „oligopolistic‟
had been available in Lenin‟s day for him to use instead of the term
„monopolistic‟ to describe this higher stage of capitalism.2 But
however it is expressed, the point is that there are degrees of
monopolization, and Lenin wanted to emphasize that at the fundamental
economic level what had most changed was that there was now major
aspects of monopoly in this new stage of capitalism, whether or not the
consolidation of companies had reached the point of there being a single
survivor in each industry. That is, even if there still are several huge
companies in each industry (along with some remaining inconsequential
small ones, perhaps), they tend to collude and jointly control the
market to their mutual benefit. This is something extremely important;
it changes a lot of things about capitalism.
Lenin himself said (as we will discuss later) that some competition
necessarily remains even under what he termed “monopoly capitalism”.
Since Lenin‟s day other writers (e.g., Paul Baran
and Paul Sweezy3) have more fully explored the aspects of genuine
competition that still do exist between these oligopolistic
corporations, and have pointed out that this competition tends to be
restricted to secondary areas such as product styling and advertising,
with only very weak competition in price and product quality, which more
directly affect profits. While price fixing is officially illegal these
days, the common approach is for the largest company in an industry to
set the price level, and for the rest of the industry to then
“coincidentally” match it. But if this second stage of capitalism
is characterized most centrally by the existence of major aspects of
monopoly, and if it carries the name of “monopoly capitalism”, then
why also give it the name “imperialism”? This is a question that has
puzzled lots of people, including me when I was first learning about
capitalist imperialism more than 40 years ago. The brief answer is that
the characteristic political expression of this second stage of
capitalism comes in the form of imperialism, and in fact imperialism
characterizes modern capitalism as much as monopoly does. However, many
people are still troubled by the fact that traditional forms of
imperialism existed during the pre-monopoly stage of capitalism, and
even back in ancient times long before capitalism arose, with the Roman
Empire for example. Since imperialism has been around so long, they
don‟t want to use this term as a name for the second stage of
capitalism. Thus, the Marxist-influenced Third World theorist Samir Amin
starts off a recent essay with the following paragraph: Imperialism is
not a stage, not even the highest stage, of capitalism: from the
beginning, it is inherent in capitalism‟s expansion. The imperialist
conquest of the planet by the Europeans and their North American
children was carried out in two phases and is perhaps entering a third.4
Amin goes on to describe the “first phase of this devastating
enterprise” as the conquest of the Americas by European mercantilist
powers and the second phase as “the colonial subjugation of Asia and
Africa”. And today, he says, “we see the beginnings of a third wave
of devastation of the world by imperialist expansion, encouraged by the
collapse of the Soviet system and the regimes of populist nationalism in
the Third World.”5 It is clear that Amin is using the word
“imperialism” in the older, more traditional and more limited
sense, of one country forcefully acquiring direct or indirect political
and/or economic control over other countries or areas. He is unable to
recognize that Lenin and his followers are using the term differently.
We Marxist-Leninists seek not merely to describe the political surface
of society, but to probe the material underpinnings and bring to light
the economic factors and relationships which lead to those political
circumstances. Lenin made the choice to use the term „imperialism‟ not
just to refer to certain political policies of aggression, conquest, and
foreign control, but more importantly to refer to an economic system
that depends upon such “policies” for its very existence. This is a
profound new meaning for the term „imperialism‟. There is of course some
truth to Amin‟s assertion that (old-style) imperialism accompanied
capitalism from the beginning. It is even true to say that imperialist
policies were important to capitalism from the beginning, and grew to be
of ever-greater importance to capitalism throughout the 18th and 19th
centuries. But it is also important to recognize that there was a
qualitative change, or leap, toward the end of the 19th century, when
imperialist “policies” became not just “very important” to
capitalism, but central to it—so central that they now characterize
the very economic system. That is the quite valid point Lenin was trying
to make.


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