From Science and Society, Fall 1997
John Willoughby's essay, "Evaluating the Leninist Theory of Imperialism" (1995), is the latest in a long series of unfriendly critiques of that theory by academic Marxists who are hostile to the modem theories which mainly descend from Lenin's theory of imperialism. The critical procedure has by now become routinized. First: just one of Lenin's many writings on imperialism is discussed, this being his pamphlet Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916a), an important work but one which discusses only the economic part of the theory, and which, significantly, bears the subtitle, "A Popular Outline." Second: the claim is made (or implied) that this economic part is the whole theory, and everything else--politics, geopolitics, society, culture, etc.--is irrelevant, except as a deduction from the theory, or as a form of practice somehow sanctioned by the theory. Third: Lenin's argument in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism is shown to be heavily dependent on earlier writings on the economics of imperialism by Hobson, Hilferding, and others, and Lenin's work is therefore judged to be rather unoriginal and (intellectually, at least) unimportant. Finally: it is shown that the economic theory presented in the Imperialism pamphlet does not prove, as Lenin supposedly thought it did, that imperialism is the final, catastrophic stage of capitalism and will lead to socialist revolution. Capitalism, these academic Marxists assure us; has passed beyond the stage of bellicose imperialism and is now a relatively peaceful system, still somewhat progressive, though of course imperfect.
Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism is not the best place to begin an analysis of Lenin's theory. Or, if we do start here, we should read the preface very carefully. The work was written in 1916 and published only after the fall of the tsarist government in early 1917. In the preface Lenin says:
"This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints. . . It is painful, in these days of liberty, to reread the passages of the pamphlet which have been distorted, cramped, compressed in an iron vice on account of the censor. That the period of imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution; that social chauvinism. . . is the utter betrayal of socialism; that [the] split in the working-class movement is bound up with the objective conditions of imperialism, etc.--on these matters I had to speak in a slavish tongue, and I must refer the reader who is interested in the subject to the articles I wrote abroad in 1914-17. (1916a, 18, emphasis added.)"
These articles are not often referred to,
much less analyzed.
As a result, Willoughby (like these other scholars) attributes to Lenin theory of imperialism that is not Lenin's and is in some ways antithetical Lenin's; a theory that is economistic, Eurocentric, unoriginal, and bland.
Lenin developed his theory of imperialism
mainly in 1915 and 1916, when he was in exile in
The essential argument against the first of
these two contrasting economistic positions is given
in Lenin's essays 'The Collapse of the Second International" (1915a),
"Socialism and War" (1915b), and "Imperialism and the
Lenin's earliest writings displayed a strongly diffusionist view of social evolution, a view that was held in common by all Marxists in that period and was a legacy from classical Marxism (see Blaut, 1987a; 1987b; 1989; 1993; 1994). At the center of the world system, capitalism had matured, and the conditions for its transformation into socialism were ripening. In the periphery, capitalism was advancing outward, effectuating the bourgeois revolution as it proceeded. Most Marxists viewed this as a smooth outward flow of basically economic forces (Bernstein, 1961; Bauer, 1907; Luxemburg, 1907-1908). Most of them (though not Bernstein) deplored colonialism. but they rejected the idea that state formation in the periphery would be important enough to perturb the essentially steady diffusion of a center-dominated capitalism that was becoming fully international.
Lenin's book The Development of Capitalism in
Some time around October 1915, Lenin developed the central propositions of his theory (see Lenin, 1915c, 735-743). Monopoly capitalism no longer can survive without continuously increasing investment and exploitation of labor in colonies and other peripheral regions. This enables it to resolve, temporarily, the contradictions at the center, because very high returns, 'superprofits,' are obtained under colonial and semi-colonial political regimes which enforce low wages and suppress local competition. (Note here the intertwining of politics and economics.) These superprofits not only maintain the rate of return on investment overall, but they provide a fund with which the upper stratum of the working class can be 'bribed" into quiescence, thus holding back the development of economic and political struggles against capitalism at home. But all of this merely set the stage for the great crisis of monopoly capitalism: the World War. The world is finite in extent, and the "partitioning" of the peripheral regions into colonies and semi-colonies has been completed. This means that the imperialist countries no longer can expand their territories for superexploitation and superprofits unless they make war on one another in order to 'repartition" these territories--steal away one another's colonies and spheres of domination. This, said Lenin (1915a), made a World War inevitable and indeed was the primary cause of the war. Why did the workers agree to fight in the war? One reason was ideological obfuscation, which Lenin blamed partly on the working-class leadership, now bribed, submissive, and dutifully chauvinist. But Lenin argued that, in addition to the bribes to the labor aristocracy, enough 'crumbs" from imperialist superprofits were passed to the broad working class to gain its temporary support for the war (1916c; 1916d). The root cause was monopoly capitalism, but Lenin viewed this as a political and social as well as economic system in the advanced capitalist countries. At the world scale it was imperialism.
This analysis led Lenin to argue that the most important feature of world-scale imperialism--"the essence of imperialism"--is the division of the world into "oppressor" and "oppressed" countries, the former being the imperialist powers, the latter including all of the colonial and semi-colonial periphery as well as many small countries in Europe (Lenin, 1915d, 409). This seems to be the origin of the core-periphery model that underlies modern theories of underdevelopment, dependency, and imperialism, both Marxist and non-Marxist. It stands in direct opposition to the diffusionist model, or rather it posits that, in the era of monopoly capitalism or imperialism, the primary force no longer is the world-scale diffusion of capitalism (though this continues in various ways) but rather the fixing in place of a two-sector world, a world divided into oppressor and oppressed regions. Lenin did not belittle the significance of working-class struggles in the oppressor or imperialist countries, and he did not at this time question the principle that the workers of the advanced countries would lead the world revolution. He did argue, as (I believe) no Marxist before him had argued, that workers and peasants in the oppressed countries were an essential part of the struggle against world capitalism. And that struggle now assumed a somewhat new form. The period before imperialism had seemed to be a relatively peaceful time, as capitalism "rose" and then "matured" into a world system. But capitalism had not "matured," said Lenin: it had become imperialist. This new era was one in which political struggles were becoming more intense, not less intense. The old view that nationalism declines as capitalism matures into an international system turns Out to be erroneous. Nationalism and national struggles increase in the era of imperialism. The oppressor countries fight one another in efforts to annex more territories, and they impose ever harsher oppression in the peripheral countries in efforts to increase or maintain the flow of the needed superprofits: "Imperialism is the era of the oppression of nations on a new historical basis" (Lenin, 1915c, 739). In the oppressed countries, there is great intensification of the struggle for liberation (see Blaut, 1982; 1987b).
Theory-building continued after the Bolshevik
revolution. In 1919, Lenin argued against the view that imperialism has
completed the differentiation of social classes; that national and other
democratic struggles within the state are therefore now purely bourgeois and
reactionary, of no interest to the proletariat. Even in the imperialist
countries, he said, social differentiation is far from complete, and so these
struggles remain progressive and important. Even in post-revolutionary
Two additional propositions remained to be
added to the theory. At The Second Congress of the Communist International, in
1920, Lenin interacted with revolutionaries from colonial and semi-colonial
countries, and a result (I believe) of this interaction he came to the
conclusion that struggles in the peripheral sector are no less essential and no
less important for the world revolution than are struggles within the
imperialist countries (see Adhikari, 1971,156--205). Later, as he contemplated the sad state of the
working-class movement in Western Europe and the resilience of monopoly
capitalism, he went so far as to speculate that the periphery might a greater
role than the center in the world revolution, simply because many more
oppressed people lived in the colonial and semi-colonial world an in Europe
(Lenin, 1923, 500). Here we have a theoretical proposition within the Leninist
theory of imperialism--the significance of anti-colonial other struggles in the
periphery--that has been very influential in
Lenin's theory posits that imperialism is the final stage of capitalism, id that, unlike the prior era of competitive capitalism, it will be an era of turmoil. But Lenin's views on this matter of prognostication are often misunderstood, partly because so many of his statements are hortatory or polemical, exaggerating this or that argument in ways appropriate to the context but confusing when read many years later. During the World War Lenin predicted a long period of intermittent wars, including a second World War. Toward the end of his life he speculated that capitalism might actually survive for another 50 years. In opposing Kautsky's theory of 'ultra-imperialism," the view that rival powers might eventually settle their differences and begin peaceful era of collective exploitation across the entire world--a view that Lenin argued against vehemently, mainly because it implied that acquiescence in chauvinism in the short run might be rewarded with lasting peace in the long run--Lenin did not insist that peaceful capitalism was an impossibility; rather, this was highly unlikely as a permanent condition and was in any case a matter concerning the distant future, with no relevance to the present struggle (Lenin, 1915d). Thus the theory of imperialism did not, as some think, predict a quick downfall of capitalism. It predicted an entire epoch of strikes, wars, revolts, and other such tumultuous happenings, followed sooner or later by socialism. Note that this previsions a second World War, a great depression, the rise and fall of fascism, the Chinese revolution, the Korean War, the two Vietnam wars, the other wars of liberation, the 'police actions," the bloody civil wars fomented and assisted by imperial powers, the massacres carried out by neocolonial elites in defense of local and multinational capitalism, etc. Lenin's prediction that the period of imperialism would be a period of turmoil appears to be holding up well.
John Willoughby describes the Leninist theory
of imperialism, then asserts that the theory has no
relevance today. But it has no relevance today because it leads us to view the
present-day world, and the future, in a way that
"To suggest that imperialism is a stage of capitalism obviously implies that eliminating imperialism requires the elimination of capitalism, since imperialism is capitalism. But this verbal sleight of hand can inhibit a study of the connection between two distinct social institutions: a mode of production ... and a system of political domination. . . Perhaps imperialism grows out of 'monopoly capitalism,' but this should [not] be treated as... an axiomatic statement which must be true." (324.)
Here the 'verbal sleight of hand" is
Marx and Engels
were diffusionists. They believed, as did every
thinker of their time, that capitalism and modernity were spreading out over
the world. But unlike mainstream thinkers, they believed that this was the
spread of a plague, not a blessing, and that capitalism was under siege at the
center: the proletariat would overthrow it in
Lenin did not share these views. His theory of imperialism was an alternative, non-diffusionist model of the world. It was uniformitarian (Blaut, 1993) in the sense that it ascribed revolutionary activism to the people of the periphery as well as the center. The exploiters in the center were now confronting the exploited masses in the periphery as well as in their own countries. The world as a whole was now divided into two sectors, the monopoly-capitalist countries and the oppressed countries. Capitalism could only survive at the center, maintaining profit levels and pacifying the workers with minimally acceptable wages, working conditions, job security, and living conditions, by intensifying the exploitation of workers in the periphery, even translocating masses of workers from the periphery to the center with its sweatshops, ghettos, secondary labor markets (Lenin, 1917, 168). This theory was the first strong challenge to the Eurocentric world models which dominated European thought, Marx-and non-Marxist, in the early years of the 20th century.
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