Lenin's relevance in the 21st century


Review by Tony Iltis

Imperialism, The Highest Stage Of Capitalism
By V.I. Lenin (1916)
Resistance Marxist Libraryn
Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999. 147 pp., $10.95
Available at Resistance Bookshops, or send $12.95 (incl. postage) to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007

The republication of some of the classics of Marxist literature in the Resistance Marxist Library series might cause some to wonder whether or not, at the beginning of the 21st century, the writings of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin are of more than historical interest. Those who seek to repudiate Marxism often point to the socioeconomic and political changes in the world since the Communist Manifesto was written 150 years ago.

Since Marx and Engels' time, there has been the growth of monopolies, the merging of banking and industrial capital, the ability of monopolies to operate unhindered across national boundaries (the international mobility of capital), the division of the world into the militarily, economically and politically dominant nations and the super-exploited Third World, a continual increase in the wealth disparity between these two worlds, and a contradictory tendency toward global economic and cultural homogeneity and the retardation of socio-political and economic development of the Third World. Most importantly, all the economies in the world have been incorporated into a global market.

In mainstream politics, journalism and academia, all of these are theorised as the dawning of "globalisation". Right-wing politicians use globalisation as the standard justification for their attacks on the working class: Australian (or United States, Japanese, British) capitalism must be competitive on the global market! The globalised market is invoked to justify trade treaties that enshrine the plundering of Third World nations by Western-based multinationals in international law.

On the left, globalisation is often said by critics of Marxism to be a reason that revolutionary struggle is now irrelevant. The 20th century trend of revolution as a peculiarity of Third World countries, tied up with questions of national liberation and generally involving as many peasants as workers, is said to disprove Marx, as does the (uneven) trend towards class collaboration and social peace in the advanced capitalist economies.

Marx's failure to forecast these changes, say left critics, means that new ideologies (or paradigms) are needed to create progressive change in a fundamentally different (globalised) 21st century. The strategies proposed to replace that of working-class revolution are usually vague and revolve around ideas of cultural resistance or NGO-style grassroots self-empowerment.

Lenin's pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism shows very clearly that Marxism is capable of explaining the changes in capitalism since it first became the dominant mode of production in western Europe and North America more than two centuries ago. Furthermore, Lenin demonstrates that the new type of capitalism characterised by "globalisation" is the highest level to which the capitalist mode of production can evolve.

The writing of this pamphlet in 1916 attests to these developments not being as recent as many claim. Lenin identifies capitalism as entering its highest, imperialist, stage at the end of the 19th century. It is the 20th, not the 21st, that is the century of capitalist globalisation.

The legacy of the first truly global society means that the next century will be one of either socialist globalisation or social, economic and ecological disintegration. Lenin's 1916 pamphlet provides a Marxist explanation as to why.

Capitalism transformed

Lenin used Marx's dialectical method and analysis to investigate the essence of the developments in capitalism. Neither the natural tendency for laissez-faire capitalism to create monopolies, nor the exploitation, oppression and genocide of less technologically or socioeconomically advanced societies by the Western capitalist powers were absent from Marx's descriptions of capitalism.

However, while in Marx's time the tendency of free capitalist competition to result in monopolies was an economic law, by Lenin's time it had come to characterise, and thus had transformed, capitalism.

Moreover, the evolution of capitalism to its monopoly stage created new economic and political relationships between the industrialised capitalist nations and the rest of the world that they plundered through both conquest and trade. The capital accumulation necessary for the industrial revolution was provided by the colonial slave system of the 18th and early 19th centuries, whereby slave plantations provided the raw materials for industries that made the commodities which could buy slaves.

While this economic system involved a division of labour that united continents, the capitalism that emerged from the Western countries' industrial revolutions was generally organised within nation states, which provided a unified national market. The capitalists competing within nations achieved consensus on their common class interests in national parliaments.

Lenin explained that the development of monopoly trusts with more capital than they could profitably invest at home led to the export of capital. Advanced capitalist nation states sought to make the world as favourable as possible for the penetration of their national bourgeoisie's capital. This fuelled the scramble for colonies that marked the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, as the imperialist powers divided up the world for their monopolies.

Lenin called this the final division of the world, but he emphasised that re-divisions were inevitable. What he meant, and what history has confirmed, is that no new imperialist power could now emerge and that the existing powers would periodically re-divide the world through wars.

Ensuring social peace

Imperialism united the world in a global capitalist economy. For the non-imperialist countries, the effect was profound and contradictory. On the one hand, no pre-capitalist relations of production could remain intact. On the other hand, imperialism retards the social, political and economic development of these countries to ensure their subordinate role in the global economy and super-profits for the imperialist monopolies.

The emergence of imperialism also had a profound effect on the countries in which it was based. The domination of monopolies and the military machines needed for colonial conquest and inter-imperialist war meant that parliaments became mere talk-shops while the actual tasks of government fell on civil and military bureaucracies.

Most importantly, the super-profits created by the super-exploitation of the non-imperialist world enabled capitalists to accede to some of the demands of labour (e.g., universal education, accessible health care and sickness, age and unemployment pensions) and to consolidate the better-off, including the more skilled and organised layers of the working class, into a privileged stratum which was the basis for what Lenin termed the labour aristocracy.

Imperialism was thus able to promote social peace and class collaboration within the advanced capitalist countries, and reactionary ideologies such as nationalism and racism, which claim that workers and "their" national bourgeoisie have common interests, were given an apparent material basis.

Of central concern to revolutionary socialists is the relationship between the labour aristocracy and the labour movement. The apparent ability of workers to improve their standard of living under capitalism and the fact that the most privileged layers of the working class were often the most organised, meant that the leadership of trade unions and workers' parties tended to fall into the hands of those pushing class-collaborationist and nationalist politics. Marx and Engels had observed this phenomenon in England; by Lenin's time it could be observed, to some degree, in all the imperialist countries.

Lenin was preoccupied with this issue, writing as he was two years after the leaders of all the European socialist parties had rallied working people behind their bourgeoisies in the inter-imperialist war. The labour movement in the West remains in the grip of such opportunist leaderships and, reflecting the centrality of this issue, the Resistance Marxist Library edition of Imperialism includes as an appendix Lenin's 1916 article "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism".


After the Russian Revolution, Lenin's theory of imperialism became a guide for the international Communist movement organised in the Comintern. One aspect of this was a recognition that the colonial and semi-colonial countries would take centre stage in the world revolution.

The other aspect was building Communist parties in the West that would expose and replace the opportunist leaders of the workers' movement. In this framework, internationalist solidarity with the colonial revolution was counterposed to the nationalism of the labour opportunists.

However, after the Soviet Union and the Comintern fell under the bureaucratic leadership of Stalin, the Western Communist parties began to accommodate to the labour aristocracy and evolve in a nationalist, opportunist direction. In France, in 1945-54, the Communist Party served in governments trying to crush militarily the revolution in Vietnam being led by that country's Communist Party.

A quick glance at the world as the 20th century closes — the worsening Third World poverty, the immense power of multinational corporations, the wars fought by coalitions of imperialist powers on behalf of oil cartels — reveals a world still dominated by imperialism. The national liberation struggles waged by the non-imperialist countries mean that imperialism is no longer based on directly ruled colonies. But as Lenin explained, nominally independent countries can still be neo-colonies of imperialism.

Imperialism, by creating a division of labour that incorporates the whole world, has created the basis for a global socialist society. However, for so long as control of these productive forces remains in the hands of monopoly capitalists, most of the world will remain condemned to extreme poverty.

Furthermore, the militarism inherent in imperialism, which is now armed with nuclear weapons, and the environmental destruction created by enormous productive forces being in the hands of profit-frenzied speculators, mean that if socialist revolution fails to overthrow imperialism, the world faces crises far worse than any in the 20th century. This republication of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is very timely.