The Leninist theory of imperialism
and the 21st century world

by Joseph Green
(CV #38, July 2006)


The colonial and semicolonial empires
The collapse of the colonial empires
The national question
The continuation of imperialism
Spheres of influence
Wars and militarism
The world governmental organizations
The rape of the world by finance capital and the giant corporations
The tendency to reaction
Imperialism as a transition to a new system
The role of the working class

. A century ago, in the years leading up to World War I, the struggle by the Great Powers to enlarge their vast colonial holdings led to wide talk about a period of imperialism. This was a period of renewed international tensions, as each Great Power sought to encroach on the empires of its rivals. The ensuing disaster of World War I led to the development and spread of the Leninist theory of imperialism. It emphasized that the cause of colonial wars and other rivalries of the major powers was the development of monopoly capitalism; that monopoly capitalism was paving the way economically towards a new system that would supplant capitalism; and that working class revolution would be the midwife of this new system.

. There have been great changes in the world situation since then. The major world colonial empires have collapsed. International governmental organizations such as the UN, the WTO, and the IMF, regulating, to some extent, some aspects of international economics and politics, have taken on an unprecedented prominence.

. Some say that this makes the Leninist theory outdated, or even means that imperialism no longer exists, although there's much less of that talk since the Afghan and Iraqi wars. But a closer look shows that, on the contrary, the present world tensions verify precisely the Leninist theory of imperialism, which pointed to monopoly capitalism as the economic base for the massive bloodshed and militarism and other features of imperialism. The old empires are gone, but monopoly capitalism remains, and sure enough, so are wars, relations of domination and subordination among countries, and bitter exploitation of weak countries by strong. The old empires are gone, but empire-building of a new sort remains; today even many bourgeois ideologues talk about the present imperial system.

The colonial and semicolonial empires

. The collapse of the old empires is the most notable change of the last century. World War I came at a time when six Great Powers -- the UK, Tsarist Russia, France, Germany, the US, and Japan -- ruled the main colonial empires. Moreover, the imperialists didn't just dominate colonies, but extended their claws into such semi-colonial countries as China and Turkey. All in all, a handful of countries possessed vast colonial empires and spheres of influence embracing the majority of the world's population.

. Harsh as the exploitation of the colonies was, it was, however, only one part of the exploitation existing in the world at that time. The division between worker and capitalist, peasant and landlord, oppressed and oppressor, did not coincide simply with whether one lived in the Great Powers or the dominated countries. There were sharp class struggles inside the Great Powers themselves, whereas the colonial subject populations generally also had a local bourgeoisie and other local exploiters alongside the foreign overlords. The imperial oppression of the colonies was interwoven with the class oppression of the toilers, rather than being identical with it.

. In the international sphere as well, imperialism included a complex system of relations of domination and subordination as well as the colonial relationship. The great powers bullied and dominated the independent, but less powerful, subordinate capitalist countries. Indeed, even some countries with their own colonies were themselves dominated by larger powers. The subordinate countries varied greatly, from a number of weak countries that lived directly under the shadow of this or that Great Power to countries with their own regional ambitions and weak empires.

. The rapid territorial expansion of the colonial empires, and then the struggle of each Great Power to take over the colonies of its rivals, were dramatic features of the decades leading up to World War I. But Leninism held that the territorial division of the world among the Great Powers was only one feature of the new world situation of that time. Colonies and empires had existed long before then. But the imperialism of that time was something new, because it was now based on monopoly capitalism. Thus Lenin devoted most of his time in his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism to the economic side of imperialism: the rise of finance capital; the economic division of the world among the large firms (and not just the territorial division among the empires); and the nature of capitalist monopolization, which combined parasitism with an overall rapid expansion of capitalism throughout the world.

The collapse of the colonial empires

. Today, as regard to colonies, the picture of the world is quite different from what it was on the eve of World War I. The vast world wave of anti-colonial revolt in the twentieth century led to the dissolution of the old colonial empires. Among the former colonies and semi-colonies there has been an explosion of capitalist development. Some of these countries have become major capitalist countries and perhaps regional powers, and may deserve to be called imperialist countries. As a result, today the majority of the world's population doesn't live in colonies or semi-colonies but in imperialist countries and regional powers, including lesser and would-be imperialist countries.

. Thus China, a former semi-colony, has become not only an imperialist power, but a Great Power. Its economy is taking on a greater and greater world significance; it is competing with the other world powers for influence in Africa, Latin America, and Asia; and it is a nuclear power which is continually strengthening and modernizing its military. The former colony of India, too, has developed rapidly. It has its own monopoly capital; its big bourgeoisie makes major investments in other countries including the most developed ones; it is a nuclear power; and it is continually striving to modernize and strengthen its armed forces.

. If China and India were the only former members of the colonial and semicolonial world that had become imperialist, this would still represent a major change in the world. They may be only two among about two hundred presently-independent countries, but they have over a third of the world's population between them, and three-fifths of Asia's population.

. But in fact capitalism has developed rapidly in most of the former colonies and semi-colonies. In any of these countries which have a certain weight or power or geopolitical advantage, the bourgeoisie generally strives to become a regional power in its own right (Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq in the 1980s, etc. ), or to have its own place in the imperialist world. How this striving is manifested depends on the history of these countries, how far they are within the spheres of influence of more powerful countries, and how powerful they themselves are. On a world scale, these countries are subordinate to the main imperialist powers, but they seek to climb the scale of influence and power.

. Today there are relatively few outright colonies left. The overwhelming majority of the world's people live in imperialist powers or subordinate capitalist countries. Moreover, among the subordinate capitalist countries, a disproportionate role is occupied by the more powerful ones, such as the would-be imperialist countries and the regional powers. No doubt, there are also a large number of people in small and very weak countries, but the overall picture of the world situation has changed. The great anti-colonial movements of the past have radically revised it. And this new picture has changed the prospects for how revolution will take place, for it has brought the class struggle more to the fore.

. It is often objected that the existence of poverty and growing inequality in the former colonies and semicolonies, including the very largest and most powerful of them such as China and India, shows that their status hasn't really changed. Since they have not achieved decent living standards for all their people, it is held that their development must not be real, but sham. The significance of the growth of an ambitious local bourgeoisie with its own predatory interests is overlooked.

. But capitalist development has always been accompanied by the growth of insecurity and inequality. It has gone hand-in-hand with the development of mass devastation in many of these countries; and the growth of the capitalist world economy has been accompany by increasing inequality between different countries and regions, as well as inside each country. Thus the growing gap between the countryside and the city in both China and India does not disprove the existence of economic development, but is a typical result of capitalist development. Meanwhile, some countries and regions push forward, and some fall back. The East Asian tigers have grown rapidly. But the last two decades of neo-liberal reforms have seen the the economic ravaging of much of Africa, and the stagnation of much of Latin America.

The national question

. Most of the colonies of the old Great Powers have become independent. However, this does not mean that the national question has faded from world politics. In the last few decades colonial or similar situations have had an effect on world politics disproportionate to the number of oppressed people in the affected region, as seen for example in Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kurdish regions, East Timor, Eritrea, Northern Ireland, and the struggle of various indigenous peoples. Support for the right to self-determination remains a vital part of the Marxist program for proletarian internationalism.

. But the overall picture of the national question has changed. A hundred years ago, the national situation took many forms around the world, from colonial struggles for national liberation to struggles for the rights of national minorities within the existing country. But overall, the world was at the beginning of a vast wave of liberation struggle of the oppressed nations throughout the colonial and semi-colonial world. The colonies in Asia and Africa were to rise in struggle for independence, while bourgeois-democratic social revolutions were developing in the largest semi-colonies. The national liberation movement would stand out, in the twentieth century, as the model national struggle. And at the same time, the national liberation movement and other liberation movements of the oppressed East was connected with movements for social change, for social revolution. The more radical liberation movements spoke in the name of socialism, and the communist movement developed strong influence among many oppressed nations.

. But today, while various nations still fight for independence, the world wave of revolutionary liberation struggle no longer exists. The national movements that still exist today do not necessarily even have a revolutionary coloring, and the dominant leaderships may have a neo-liberal economic program. Meanwhile new bourgeoisies have grown up and been strengthened in the newly-independent countries, some of whom are now imperialist in their own right. The class struggle in these countries has often become very acute, while some of the new bourgeoisies profess an official "anti-imperialism" to cover over their own exploitation and oppression and their own alliances with various imperialist powers. This is done both by the governments, and by the Islamic fundamentalist movement.

. Indeed, a number of national struggles today are those of oppressed peoples against the dominant bourgeoisie of former colonies or semi-colonies, as when East Timor won independence from Indonesia, or Eritrea from Ethiopia, a country victimized by Italian fascist occupation in the 30s and World War II, or when the Kurds struggle for their national rights in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The colonies and semi-colonies were oppressed nations as a whole with respect to imperialism, but they often contained a number of different nationalities or ethnic groupings. The national issues that subsequently arose inside the colonies are usually, in part at least, a legacy of imperialist attempts to rule by setting one subject nationality against another, and of imperialist manipulation of the national boundary lines of the colonies and semi-colonies. It is often been suggested that in such cases, it would be capitulation to imperialism to take account of the right to self-determination of the Kurds, East Timorese, or other subject nationalities, and to change old boundaries. But, on the contrary, failure to respect to the right of the local nationalities undermined the struggles against the common oppressor in the past, and simply serves the interest of new local exploiting bourgeoisies today.

. Some would-be anti-imperialist trends, such as the Trotskyists, present various reactionary wars by subordinate powers as anti-imperialist struggles, and they may deny that any new imperialist powers could arise since the early days of imperialism. Some of these trends may deny many of the national issues that arise with subordinate countries, and most of these trends also deny that the Stalinist regimes could be state-capitalist or imperialist. They downplay the class issues in anti-imperialism, and may downplay the class issues in the national question in general, and the need for the working class to have its own distinct stand on the national question, rather than simply being the most militant section of the general national movement. These supposed anti-imperialist trends may call their stands Leninism, but they are really revisionist parodies of communism. Lenin's writings on the right to self-determination brought forth the class issues in the national movement. Marx and Lenin's analyses of capitalism also pointed to the constant changes in the world, rather than seeing the world as static. In these respects, the present world situation, far from making the Leninist theory outdated, clearly mandates a careful study of what the Leninist theory of the national question actually was. (1)

The continuation of imperialism

. The old colonial empires are mainly gone, but this does not mean imperialism is gone. The colonial empires were only one feature of imperialism. Other characteristic features of imperialism remain. The domination of great powers over weaker countries remains. One country, the US, is the world's sole remaining superpower, with the ability to apply pressure throughout the entire world. Meanwhile the US and other imperialist powers carve out particular spheres of influence in various regions of the world. Thus the world is still caught in a net of domination and subordination between countries.

. Among the features of this continuing imperialism are the following:

. Thus capitalism hasn't become civilized. As it has gone into the twenty-first century, it has retained the basic features of the old imperialism, albeit with certain modifications.

Spheres of influence

. The imperialist powers continue to regard certain countries and regions as their backyard to bully and dominate. There is a certain mutual recognition among the Great Powers as to the extent of the different spheres of influence. These spheres aren't necessarily mutually exclusive--a particular region may find itself within the sphere of influence, to varying degrees, of several powers. But when one power intrudes too far on the sphere of another power, tension or even war will ensure.

. The very language of bourgeois politics implicitly claims such spheres. Thus the American government claims that the stability and oil of the Middle East are "vital interests" of the US. The US government has also been speaking for many years, without the slightest embarrassment, about whether it wants "regime change" in various countries.

. Moreover Russia, Europe and Japan grant that, for example, much of Latin America is a US sphere of influence. The US invasions of Grenada and Panama, military intervention in Haiti, and many other acts in Latin America are accepted as simply US actions in its own "backyard". Even when the Europeans or Russians disagree with the US government, as they did with respect to US backing of the contra war against the then-Sandinista regime of Nicaragua, they do so in a restrained manner.

. There are attempts by other countries to penetrate the American sphere of influence in Latin America. Europe, for example, is trying to draw various Latin American countries into a trade bloc with them by seeking relations with Mercosur, a Latin American trade bloc linking Brazil, Argentina and some other countries. China, Japan, and South Korea are also strengthening their ties with Latin America. There is competition to attract various countries, but the methods of this competition are kept within certain limits.

. Russia also has a certain sphere of action, which other powers accept as more or less legitimate. There is some friction between Russia and the Western powers as to which of the former Soviet republics will stay with the Russian sphere of influence. But Russian bullying of various of these countries, stationing of bases in various of them, and application of economic pressure gets a relatively restrained response.

. Other big powers too have their sphere of influence. Even regional powers claim such spheres. Turkey is striving to extend its influence among the Turkic peoples of central Asia. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq used their gigantic oil wealth to contend for influence in the Persian Gulf region. The decade-long war Iran-Iraq war was part of a struggle over which of these powers would be dominant, but it ended in a stalemate. These countries court disaster when they come into direct confrontation with more powerful countries; thus the Saddam Hussein regime was devastated by the first Gulf War and the resulting US sanctions, and then overthrown in the second Gulf War. But this doesn't mean that the local bourgeoisie doesn't have its own ambitions, nor that the Great Powers can simply do what they want. For example, the US lost in Vietnam and is being embarrassed in Iraq and even Afghanistan, while the late Soviet Union, then one of the two world superpowers, lost its long war in Afghanistan.

Wars and militarism

. War remains a permanent feature of imperialism. The struggle over colonies has been replaced by the struggle for spheres of influence, and it still gives rise to war and militarism.

. Imperialism originally brought the world a series of savage colonial wars against subject peoples as well as conflicts between the imperialist powers. This led up to the great bloodletting of World War I. And after that, World War II. Since then, there hasn't been a direct, hot clash of the Great Powers with each other. But this has hardly meant a period of world peace. Following World War II, there was a new series of wars and interventions to suppress movements for national liberation. There was also a Cold War between the two major superpowers of the time, the US and the USSR, which threatened the world with the specter of a global nuclear war. (2) The Cold War included a number of bloody interventions by both the US and USSR to maintain order in their respective spheres of influence. And there were bloody clashes between rival powers seeking regional supremacy, such as the decade-long Iran-Iraq war.

. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. This left the US the only remaining world superpower. US imperialism had achieved predominant influence over world affairs, insofar as this was possible for a single country. Yet this did not bring a period of peace. US hegemony was to be maintained by the bayonet as well as by economic and political influence. US bases have been maintained around the world; large amounts of US military aid continued to help arm US allies; the Kosovo war was fought; the first and second Persian Gulf war have been fought to maintain US influence over the oil-rich Persian Gulf region; Afghanistan was invaded; etc. Moreover, the Bush government, not content with the prospect of fighting individual wars, declared that they were all part of a new global conflict, the supposed war on terror.

. Today the US spends more on war than almost every other country combined, somewhere from 40% to 48% of total world military spending. Moreover, the US military is spearheading a race to develop new weapons of every sort. The US tries to assure "full spectrum" military domination in all military spheres -- oceans, space, nuclear, etc. But the US is not the only power involved in war and militarism. Total world military spending is nearly back to Cold War levels. Countries with some wealth seek to develop heavy weapons to strike at neighbors and potential rivals, even those with whom they are presently seeking an alliance.

. And arms dealing is one of the largest sectors of world trade. The US is the largest arms dealer but Britain, Russia and other countries are heavily involved as well.

. Meanwhile, at any one time, a number of wars are going on around the world. Many of these are related to actions by bigger powers to fish in troubled waters, as wars in weaker countries give the imperialist countries an opportunity to intervene in various ways. Moreover, the struggle to exploit or dominate world resources is readily apparent in a number of them. For example, aside from the oil wars in the Middle East, it can be noticed that the pillaging of African diamond and other mineral resources is involved in the wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other parts of Africa. And the dispute over control of the oil and gas resources around the Spratly Islands and elsewhere in the South China Sea has caused tension between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and some other Asian countries.

The world governmental organizations

. Since World War II, there have been a number of influential world bodies, such as the UN and its associated World Court, the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO. Set up by agreement among governments, they speak in the name of the world's people. They regulate a number of rules of international exchange and of political relations between countries, and they have carried out a number of military interventions in the name of peacekeeping. They are neither powerless, nor a world government. Instead they present an international consensus of the present ruling classes, weighted according to the relative power of the countries which they rule.

. Just prior to World War I, the prominent theorist Karl Kautsky, who had been moving from Marxism to reformism, speculated that the high cost of armaments and war might result in the imperialist powers coming to a peaceful agreement about how to run the world. He called this "ultraimperialism". He had barely written this when World War I broke out, and the imperialist powers threw themselves upon each other like wolves, and let rivers of blood flow. After World War I, some of the big powers (the US wouldn't join) set up the League of Nations, but it was notoriously impotent to stop the rivalries of the big powers.

. The world bodies set up in the wake of World War II come closer to being a world political order than the League of Nations. Compared to the situation a century ago, they resemble "ultraimperialism". But contrary to Kautsky's reformist dream, it turns out that the international agreements of the imperialists, and their attempt to set up world authorities, has gone on hand-in-hand with hundreds of wars and interventions, and a permanent arms race. The agreements between the imperialists, reflected in the multilateral military interventions and negotiated compromises in the UN, go on simultaneously with unilateral military interventions. The UN itself serves as an agency to force dissident countries to live up to the rules of the more powerful ones; the World Trade Organization and World Bank have been a way for the more powerful countries to enforce one-sided rules on the rest of the world. And even the conflicts between the imperialists continue. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, while there have been no direct wars between the Great Powers since World War II, there has been the constant threat of global nuclear annihilation.

. Thus the world bodies represent an attempt to build a world political order of imperialism. They are by no means independent actors on the world stage, but they are stand-ins for the major powers, and they do their bidding. They represent a certain consensus among the main imperialist powers, molded not by the world's people or by the flood of sugary rhetoric about peace and justice and well-being, but by the balance of strength among the Great Powers, and with the US presently having the most influence. The very composition and rules of these bodies are based on the strong oppressing the weak. The UN directly reflects the existence of Great Powers in its division between the General Assembly and a Security Council dominated by the five permanent members. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund base voting on the wealth of countries, as reflected in their monetary contributions. The trade liberalization enforced by the World Trade Organization forces the subordinate countries to open up their markets to the US and other big powers, while allowing the big powers to protect their own capitalists from international competition in a number of different economic industries.

. If global warming and other environmental dangers are to be dealt with seriously, it will require more global coordination and regulation. But if the environmental problems aren't seriously dealt with, then their eventual effects in devastating entire regions and forcing major economic changes will itself pose the question of greater regional and global coordination. Either way these problems will eventually force a return to more regulation, as will the general problems piling up due to the imposition of free-market fanaticism ("the Washington consensus") around the world. But the history of the present world bodies shows that multilateral regulation by the present world powers is still regulation in the interests of imperialism. The clash of imperialist interests, and the exploitation of the majority, can and do continue underneath the high-sounding rhetoric of the world bodies.

The rape of the world by finance capital and the giant corporations

. Lenin pointed to the importance of the growing domination of the economy by large firms; he said that the briefest possible definition of imperialism would be "monopoly capitalism" (Ch. 7, p. 266). (3) The large firms and their alliances dominated not just the national economy, but divided up the world market for their goods.

. Today the domination of the economy by giant firms is even more obvious. There is the continuing development of giant corporations, as even yesterday's dominant corporations collapse in the face of the larger giants of today, while some fields long regarded as the province of small firms are taken over by new monopolies. This process can be seen in aircraft, airlines, automobiles, banking, retail distribution (e. g. WalMart), bookstores, music distribution (Sony, BMG, etc. ), and even coffee shops (e. g. , Starbucks).

. The modern corporate giants are generally multinational corporations, and they stretch their tentacles across the entire world. While rival alliances of corporations may have competed to divide the world market in the past, these days it may even be competing multinationals that do the same. These firms may be so large that they have more assets than some of the countries they invest in. They scour the world in the search for cheap labor, bringing sweatshops to every nook and cranny of the globe, and they exercise major influence on the politics of the countries they are in.

. Bourgeois economists like to deny the monopoly nature of today's capitalist economy by putting forward the view that monopoly requires a single firm. If several firms dominate a branch of the economy, then, in their view, it is oligopoly, not monopoly. Even if a single firm dominates some field, they may still deny there is monopoly if a different type of product is in competition with the first firm's product (TV vs. radio, for example). They obscure the difference between the old capitalism of the mid-19th century, where industrial markets generally saw the competition of a multitude of moderate-sized firms, and current capitalism, where they are dominated by a handful of giant firms.

. They also point to the continued existence of a multitude of small firms. But the Leninist theory was never that monopoly capitalism meant the elimination of all small firms, only the domination of the market by the giant firms. As Lenin said, "the monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist above it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts. " (Ch. 7, p. 266)

. The Leninist theory also pointed to the importance of finance capital, rather than simply industrial capital, in the monopoly capitalist economy. The dominant capital is no longer firmly associated with the firms which directly use it for their operations. Now capital emancipated from any long-term connection to any particular use, money capital, bank capital, speculative capital, has become king. In a statement that finds confirmation every night on the TV news, Lenin wrote that "Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and everlasting profits from the floating of companies, issue of stock, state loans, etc. , strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levies tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of monopolists. " (Ch. 3, p. 232) Today this type of capital floats from one deal to another; creates energy companies like Enron that have more to do with financial wheeling and dealing than actually producing or transmitting energy; "rescues" failing companies by striping them of their pension obligations and union contracts and then sells them off; runs from one country to another in a matter of a few days, throwing whole countries into financial crashes; and so on.

The tendency to reaction

. Lenin wrote that "politically, imperialism is, in general, a striving towards violence and reaction. " (Ch. 7, p. 268) In the early years of imperialism, whatever bourgeois-democracy that might exist in the imperialist heartlands, the savagery of the domination of the colonies showed the nature of imperialism. Moreover, imperialism led to the strengthening of militarism and reactionary tendencies in the imperialist countries as well. Dissent would be suppressed in war-time, and reactionary trends fostered in peacetime. In the period between World War I and II, monopoly capitalism gave birth to the fascist movement. It was not backward countries, but highly developed countries of big capital, such as Germany, Japan and Italy, that spearheaded the world fascist offensive.

. This same pull towards reaction can be seen today as well. It's not that everything is more backward than in the past. Today, for example, women's suffrage is widespread while the old capitalism of the 19th century had little of it. The mass movements and revolutionary struggles of the past have made a difference, as did the defeat of the fascist Axis in World War II. But as long as monopoly capitalism exists, there is always the threat to return to all the old junk, and to develop new forms of oppression as well. Monopoly capitalist society doesn't just become more and more enlightened, with each generation building on the advances of the last. Instead there are powerful class forces that continually seek to pull society backward, so that democratic rights and social advances are unstable. The monopoly bourgeoisie seeks to pull society backward so as to defend its right to monopoly profits, to defend its class rule.

. Many examples could be given. It can be seen in the history of US imperialism in supporting the most blood-stained tyrannies around the world, so long as they were allied with US interests. It can be seen in the general offensive to lower wages, cancel pension and health plans, and remove worker rights which many people had gotten use to taking for granted. It can be seen in the persistence of racism, despite the downfall of Jim Crow, and in the long years of bourgeois agitation against affirmative action. It can be seen in the growing restriction of abortion rights. And it is particularly noticeable in the so-called war on terrorism. In the US and the West, this war is being accompanied by a restriction of rights, and the struggle against al-Qaeda was proclaimed to be a war on terror so as to allow its extension against any foreign or domestic target. The infamous "Patriot Act" in the US was the model for similar acts around the world. Spying, torture, racial and ethnic profiling, imprisonment without trial or charge, harsher treatment of immigrants, and so forth, are being increased and openly advocated in the traditional imperialist countries.

. It is also noticeable in the wave of religious fundamentalism around the world is also another sign of the backward tendencies of imperialism. The rise of the influence of the religious right in the US is welcomed and fostered by the big bourgeoisie. And big capital has played a role in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. US imperialism not only fostered the bin Ladens and fundamentalist warlords in the 1980s in order to strike at the Soviet Union, but it still allies with those fundamentalists who serve its interest. Meanwhile, as seen with the example of bin Laden himself, sections of the big bourgeoisie of Saudi Arabia were prominent in financing the most virulent and backward trends of fundamentalism.

Imperialism as a transition to a new system

. Lenin's theory of imperialism emphasized not just the crimes of imperialism, but that imperialism was a transition to a new system. By this he didn't simply mean that imperialism would eventually end, but that monopoly capitalism was creating the economic conditions to replace capitalism altogether. Capitalism would be replaced not simply because workers were morally outraged by the crimes of capitalism. It would be replaced because economic development itself was both creating the possibility for that replacement, and forcing that replacement.

. But how would capitalism be replaced? Capitalism didn't come into existence because of a mistaken government policy, or simply because people didn't know better. Capitalism developed as the inevitable outcome of the marketplace when it has broken free of the restrictions of feudalism or other previous systems. It could not be overcome unless the marketplace could be replaced with planning: it wasn't sufficient to want planning and to want the working people to decide things for themselves, it was necessary to have the conditions to do so. When the economy consisted of hundreds of thousands or millions of small enterprises, each operated independently, it would be impossible to have a planned economy.

. Monopoly capitalism has, in its own painful, exploitative, and wasteful fashion, been creating the conditions for something new. The technical and scientific progress since the advent of imperialism has been tremendous. New means of production have been created which require overall planning, or they will destroy the world. There has been a certain amount of experience with widescale planning embracing the production, geographical conditions, and social services of entire countries and regions, but the different bourgeoisies have used planning for the most vile purposes of crushing rivals and fighting wars. Monopoly capitalism is increasingly creating a larger working class, which is the only class capable of running the modern means of production on a new basis, and the only class with the basic interest, once it becomes class-conscious, to eliminate all forms of exploitation.

. Large-scale planned production doesn't mean that all workplaces will be giant, but that they all will be connected together by working for a common plan. The workplaces will not be independent financial units. This, however, doesn't mean that they will not have any local initiative, but that they will direct their efforts within the constraints of a common plan. This will not only provide the advantages of common effort, but a better basis for meaningful personal and small-group initiative. People will not have to work according to guessing what the market needs, something with unpredictable results, but they will work according to the needs of all. The working class -- which in the future society will be the entire population -- will be able to decide as a whole what common efforts are needed to provide the means of life and culture to everyone, to protect the environment, and to adjust to those changes in the environment which may already be inevitable.

. Although monopoly capitalism is creating the conditions for something new, the change will not be a gradual and easy one. The big bourgeoisie will fight very hard to maintain its class rule. The change will be a revolutionary one. The bourgeoisie shifts back and forth between free-market fanaticism and regulated capitalism; and, as mentioned, environmental problems, if not other failures of neoliberalism, will eventually cause it to shift back towards regulations. But this will not mean planning for the benefit of the people, nor can monopoly capitalism ever overcome capitalist anarchy, no matter how much regulation it resorts to. The working class must oppose the regulated capitalism of monopoly capitalism as well as neoliberalism; it may take over some of the technical means developed by monopoly capitalism, but it must eliminate capitalist ownership of the means of production, and it must develop planning based on working class control. Monopoly capitalism prepares the ground for the transition to a new society, but this society comes about only by overthrowing capitalist ownership and the entire monopoly capitalist system.

. This part of Lenin's theory, the role of imperialism as a transition to a new system, is often shrugged off because the change has not taken place as fast as the communist movement of his time hoped. Moreover, although the Bolshevik revolution and several others overthrew the traditional bourgeoisies of their countries and scared the world bourgeoisie, they did not create socialism. Instead the revolutions died out, and Stalinist state-capitalist regimes were created, ruled by bureaucrats who formed a new bourgeoisie. These regimes were eventually new forms of monopoly capitalism. They spoke in the name of Marxism, but revised Marxism to justify exploitation. The history of these revolutions remains a valuable part of working class history, but from now on revolutionary theory must be an anti-revisionist theory. The only true Marxism-Leninism is that which opposes the revisionism of these regimes and the new bourgeoisie of any of these regimes that still remain (China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc. )

. But Lenin's theory is not simply a prediction of the overthrow of monopoly capitalism; instead it concerns what must be done while monopoly capitalism remains. By showing that monopoly capitalism builds up within itself the forces that will bring about its own destruction, it shows what must be done to really oppose imperialism. And this raises the question of the working class.

The role of the working class

. Lenin's theory of imperialism pointed to working-class revolution as the main force that would overthrow imperialism. Lenin's theory is based on Marx's analysis of capitalism and the class struggle that arises within it, and shows how the Marxist analysis remains valid in the new conditions of monopoly capitalism that arose after Marx died. But the present disorganization of the workers movement has been a cause of celebration for the world bourgeoisie. A hundred years ago, the threat of the class struggle inside most imperialist countries was manifest. Today, working class organizations are either at low-ebb or dominated by reformism or other backward trends. Sometimes a bourgeois commentator will say that Marx was right about the intensification of inequality under capitalism, as seen during globalization, but will claim he was wrong about the idea of socialism and working-class revolution.

. But beneath the surface of current political events, the working class is being prepared to once again play a revolutionary role. There is a tremendous spread of the working class around the world. However disappointing some of the results of decolonization, which led not to liberated societies but capitalist ones, there has been a tremendous growth of the working class in the former colonial and semicolonial world in general. Multinational corporations have fled from one country looking for the lowest wages and the least developed countries. But in so doing, they have helped spread modern class antagonisms everywhere.

. The changes in the world since the advent of imperialism, such as the collapse of the old empires, have brought the issue of capitalist exploitation more to the fore everywhere. When Lenin put forward the importance of the working class in the anti-colonial struggle, the working class was small in number in great expanses of the old empires. Today, the working class is numerous and growing, if poverty-stricken and in horrible conditions, in these regions. These conditions bring even more to the fore the basic view of the Leninist theory of imperialism -- the role of working class as the basic opponent of imperialism.

. Of course, numbers alone aren't enough. The working class has to surmount its present disorganized state. Militant organization has to be formed in the cause of the struggle for the basic interests of the masses, organization that will stand up against the reformist and backward trends. Revolutionary activists have to sum up the lessons of a century of struggle against imperialism and work to build up revolutionary working class parties. The theoretical crisis of the left has to be surmounted by carrying through the struggle against revisionism. At the present, this work will only seem to achieve sporadic success at best. But revolutionary work in the midst of the working class is never lost; it is this work which will help remove some of the obstacles and zigzags which would otherwise sabotage future upsurges.

. But some, under the name of anti-imperialism, seek another, faster way. Some advocate minor reforms in the world market, such as a Tobin tax on the flight of financial capital from one country to another. Others side with one bourgeois regime against another: they don't judge regimes and political forces by their relation to the working masses, but only by the rivalries among the bourgeois forces. They may support tyrants, if only they are in contradiction with US imperialism for a time, and they may back one imperialism against another. This appears to them as practical, yet they find themselves disappointed time after time by the results of their policy.

. The only really practical work is to help the working class organize itself. Even today, disorganized as they are, the working masses again and again surprise the bourgeoisie: such as when an especially disadvantaged section of the working class, the immigrants including the undocumented ones, stood up in massive demonstrations against the reactionary House bill to increase their oppression; or when the French common people voted against the neoliberal EU constitution, or the French youth and workers forced the withdrawal of the bill to allow employers to fire young workers at will. If, in the name of fighting terrorism, the bourgeois governments are passing one measure after another to shackle the people, it means that they foresee the need for these measures in order to keep pushing their reactionary agenda still further. How much more powerful the working masses will be when once again revolutionary organization is formed among them! The heart of the Leninist theory of imperialism is its encouragement of the effort to advance this work.


(1) See, for example, such articles as An Outline of Leninist Anti-Imperialism and Anti-imperialism and the Class Struggle in Communist Voice issue #29, June 2002. The full text of these and some related articles are also available at the CV website,, see in particular the links to various articles at (Return to text)

(2) As the working-class regime established by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 had been replaced by the development of a new bourgeoisie and the consolidation of Stalinist state-capitalism in the 1930s, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was not a conflict between capitalism and socialism, but one between two rival capitalist groupings. Nevertheless, for some time after the Stalinist turnaround, the Soviet bloc continued to attract various revolutionary movements. Such movements have to be evaluated in their own right and shouldn't automatically be regarded as extensions of Soviet state-capitalism. Conversely, some just struggles broke out against Soviet state-capitalism, and they shouldn't automatically be denigrated as tools of American imperialism. Moreover, the state-capitalist bloc itself split up into rival sections, just as rivalries exist between the Western capitalist big powers. (Text)

(3) All chapter and page numbers in this article are references to Lenin's Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism, and in particular to Volume 22 of Lenin's Collected Works. (Text)

Back to main page, write us!

August 10, 2006.