Mar 14, 2006

Quick analysis of Lenin's On Imperialism

In 1916, Lenin wrote his highly influential, even to this day, work called “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, importantly subtitled “A Popular Outline”. This distinction will become critical later on, for reasons that become clear.

For Lenin, as outlined in this book, imperialism was a new and distinct stage in capitalism. Essentially, he said that economic competition within countries had coalesced into national monopolies, where few national competitors fought each other for supremacy in the market. Specifically, the small businesses that had dominated Karl Marx's analysis had gone, replaced by these huge monopolies, there had been a “remarkably rapid concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises”(1). Because of this decreased competition on the national level, it became increasingly ferocious internationally.

Because businesses would rely on states to secure their vital interests and their organized power to protect them. An excellent example of this is the British Royal Navy. Britain was expanding via trade and the Navy was necessary for the protection of their merchant vessels on the open seas. This inevitably leads to military uses for economic gain, such as the acquisitions of territory in Africa that was done by Britain and France. The rational for such expansion could be explained as the export of surplus capital, an idea which was adapted from Hobson.

This theory of imperialism has been built upon and added and is still used today to explain military excursions by countries into other regions. Most commonly, it is applied to US foreign policy and the processes of globalization and integration of international markets into the world system (under the core-dependency theory). However, this claims need closer assessment and not just blind acceptance.

For example, the United States has the worlds largest and most powerful military. Its budget for 2005 it was $420.7 billion,(2) with the next largest spender, China, being at $29.9 billion.(3) However, we do not find the United States interests being dictated by purely economic means. In many wars, such as the Vietnam conflict, or the second Iraq war, it came out with a significant monetary loss, little capitalistic reason for being there in the first place and a distinct set of ideological/security assumptions that explain its presence in the region.

Furthermore, the world political situation under which Lenin wrote his work has changed drastically. Instead of there being a multipolar world of competing states (and therefore monopolies too), there is only one major power. In the past, several states were in competition, the UK, the French, Germany, Japan etc...However, if one looks, since WWII, these states have all received funding in large amounts from the USA, who nowadays has no enemy which can easily challenge it. Also, the vast majority of the worlds states are now integrated into a world capitalist economic system, which means that military expansion is far less likely, as investment can take place with few restrictions from foreign companies. The New York Times journalist and advocate, Thomas Friedman has simplistically referred to this as the “Golden Arches” rules, that any state with a MacDonalds (i.e; integrated into the capitalistic world economic system) have not gone to war with each other. Admittedly, this is based on Liberal, rather than Marxist notions, but the point is pretty clear. Where there is chance for investment, there is no need for imperialistic wars of profit.

Also of interest is how this applies to the Core-Periphery theory, often associated with the Latin American schools of Marxist thought. This theory is based around the assumptions that there exists and economic “core” of advanced industrial states and a “periphery” of less developed (particularly in transportation infrastructure), richer in resources and exploited by these Core states via the ruling classes and coercive work practices. The core takes the raw materials for relatively cheap prices, then manufactures and sells the material back at a greater cost, essentially leaving the country in relative poverty, dependent on core states it trades with for manufactured goods. Obviously under this system, its the Core states that benefit and so it appears to be another form of Imperialism. Immanuel Wallerstein, the outspoken and controversial World-System theory described eloquently when he said “The mark of the modern world is the imagination of its profiteers and the counter-assertiveness of the oppressed.”(4) As it was said by Lenin, the structure of capitalism leads to war. The difference is Wallerstein seems to mark down the conflict as being between capitalist powers and anti-imperial resistance (nationalist movements etc)

How true is this, however? Some disagree and say that the analysis is oversimplified and highly static. Most obviously, the are conservative theories which do not accept the underlying a priori assumptions of Marxism. However, because of this, they create competing theories and alternative, world embracing ideologies. Thats why the Left critique, the so-called New Marxism by authors such as Bill Warren make more detailed and concise analysis, because they agree with much of the axiomatic assumptions (not all though), of Marxism, yet come to a very different conclusion.

Warren's work, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism is many senses a “back to basics” of Marxist views of capitalism, namely that it is a successful and advanced system of economics. Rather than the one sided condemnation that have come down from Communist revolutionaries and state leaders, Warren reminds us that capitalism lays the groundwork for Communist revolution in the future, indeed, that it cannot happen without it, because it was a necessary phase.

Instead, capitalism, according to Warren, was fulfilling its historical role, by developing the periphery so that the means of production would be developed and lead to eventual socialism by creating an urban working class. An example he cited was India, though he deeply analyzed the history and development of colonialism as a whole. As Marx himself said, “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating.” By the destruction of the pre-capitalist, feudalistic caste society, India was built up into an economic powerhouse, the effects of which can still be seen today, with India's industries competing with the best in the world. There were also improvements in education, healthcare and with greater access to consumer goods. Also noted was that education was so good that in fact the percentage of the population in the Third World outnumbered that in Europe.(5)

Essentially, the argument is that Imperialism is a necessary and often bloody step, which nonetheless improved life for many people in those countries that were conquered. Lenin confused the cause with effect, he thought capitalism lead to Imperialism, not the other way around. Even Lenin had admitted that “the export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported,“ in other words, the colonies.(6)

Warren also takes time to attack the related Core-Periphery theory, which is of course linked deeply to Lenin's work. He attacks that you can even argue that there is economic exploitation, when the “economic south” gains, even slightly, from the transaction. For it to be exploiting those states, it would have to be total exploitation, with no benefits for the periphery whatsoever. This based on the idea that there is a limited amount of prosperity in the world, that there is a limit to resources and how to create capital, therefore taking resources from one area to another necessarily results in impoverishment for some.

Dependency also fails to take into account how nations like Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and so on have grown to become “economic tigers” in world affairs, despite their dependent status throughout modern history. There is no explanation for how these countries have changed into successful, near industrial states. Clearly, this is a major flaw in the theory.

More importantly, the understanding of investment is too simplistically applied here. Dependency theory states that investment in only enclaves (such as oil, for an example) leads to backwardness in the state development. However, that the investment from that is coming in at all shows little exploitation. If one were to look at Saudi Arabia, for example, the problem there has been misuse of foreign investment to better other industries in the country. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has successfully made use of capital from foreign investors in oil to help build its now lucrative tourism industry. That the enclaves mentioned are the only area for investment is not the fault of the core states, they have no choice but to invest in those. The periphery state should have developed its industrial base further.

Apologists for Lenin have often pointed out that his work is only “A Popular Outline”. In fact, it was an attempt to synthesize different strands of Marxist thought to a contemporary situation. One of the many problems of the Soviet Union was the near deification of men such as Lenin, so that their word became immutable writ rather than understood in the context it was written. For the time it was written in, it is an empirically based and well written argument.

However, the context has changed. The reasons for the international rivalry among European states, which have gone through decolonization, are now gone. There are very few areas on the planet which are now part of a non-Capitalist system. It has even been argued that states such as North Korea and Cuba are engaging in state capitalism, rather than true Communism. China, the largest Communist state, is experimenting with a mix of capitalism and Maoist Marxism. With US dominance as a global hegemon, large scale wars such as WWI are unlikely anyway, as are attempts to capture colonies. Those empires held by Great Britain and France were given up because of resistance and difficulty in maintaining control of them. With advances in guerrilla warfare becoming apparent in places like Iraq and Nigeria, it would be of increased difficulty to manage today.

Also, what would the point be? Very few states are outside of the global capitalist system. Its cheaper and easier to use economic clout nowadays, in terms of loans, embargoes and so forth. Given US and European dominance in the IMF, World Bank and WTO, it is much easier to economically, than militarily coerce states. Its possible that Lenin's theories would shed further light on how these institutions operate.

In conclusion, Lenin's work was a compelling argument for its time period. While there have been many changes in the modern world, his work can still help us shed light on how institutions and practices may be working to the benefit of major powers and taking advantage of others. At the same time, Warren's work and critique is a reminder that even this can have its upside and benefits, for everyone involved.


Alright, I'm going to apologize right up. I was having problems finding some of the texts at the Library, so I took the liberty of reading online copies of Lenin's and Marx's work. Terrible I know, but I will cite them anyway, as they are their books, just in an online format.

(1) Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin, Chapter I Concentration of Production and Monopolies
(4)Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vol. I, Academic Press Inc.(London) Ltd p 233.
(5) Marx, The Future Results of British Rule in India, 1853, taken from MECW Volume 12, p. 217
(6) Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin, Chapter IV, Export of Capital.
(7)Baylis and Smith, The Globalization of World Politics, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2001, p 216-219

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