Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 16)

Lenin on the defining features of imperialism

V.I. Lenin in his famous from 1915 pamphlet “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” lists the following five features of what was then the new, imperialist stage of capitalism.

(1) The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;

(2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy:

(3) The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;

(4) The formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves;

(5) The territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

How Lenin’s defining features of imperialism have held up a century later

Virtually all Marxist and indeed all serious students of economics accept feature No. 1—the concentration of production and capital—as a fact of life of present-day capitalism. Indeed, the concentration of capital and production is much higher than it was on the eve of World War I, the period Lenin analyzed.

Feature no. 4—the formation of monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves—is accepted by Marxists and indeed many non-Marxists as even more descriptive of today’s conditions, when all large corporations operate on a multinational scale.

Feature no. 5—the territorial division of whole world among capitalist powers—was completed around the turn of the 20th century and is a statement of historical fact accepted by all.

The division of the world among the imperialist powers meant that further expansion of the colonial empires and “spheres of influence” could not occur without the various powers colliding. There was, however, on the eve of the “great war” a school of thought that held that a major war between the imperialist states was unlikely. This was based on the notion that economies had become so intertwined that the capitalist ruling classes would oppose any move toward war. Related to this, a view held that a major war among the imperialist powers was unlikely because it would be financially ruinous.  (1) These arguments, answered by the events of August 1914 and subsequently, are more than a historical curiosity, since occasionally we still run into them today.

Thanks to the Russian Revolution of 1917, a major part of the globe was largely withdrawn from the sphere of capitalist exploitation. (2) However, since the 1990s, as the result of the Russian bourgeois counterrevolution that restored capitalism but not the czarist feudal military empire, combined with the powerful upsurge of capitalist development in China and Vietnam, the world now looks more like that on the eve of World War I than the situation that prevailed during most of the rest of the 20th century.

However, the rest of the 20th century proved to be richer in world wars and revolutions and counterrevolutions than any preceding century in recorded history. As a result of these titanic developments, along with the inevitably uneven nature of capitalist development, the division of the world among the imperialist and other countries engaged in capitalist production has taken quite different forms than those that prevailed on the eve of World War I.

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