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. Willoughby mentions none of them in his S&S essay. The only work which he evaluates is the Imperialism pamphlet. He is hardly alone in this practice; see, for instance, Arrighi, 1978; Barone, 1985; Brewer, 1980; Warren, 1980; Weeks, 1983.

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 Switzerland. This was a time of profound crisis for socialists. Lenin and other revolutionaries were trying to prevent socialists from supporting a war in which workers killed other workers on behalf of capitalism. Most socialist leaders and parties were succumbing to national chauvinism, and were trying to justify their position by appeals to Marxist theory, including arguments about a new stage of capitalism developed by Hilferding, Kautsky, and other theoreticians, arguments that seemed to suggest the likelihood of a quick and fair peace and a future in which capitalism would peacefully develop into socialism. The core of these arguments was the economistic thesis that, since capitalism as an economic system "has become fully international," "has transcended the bounds of the national state" (much-used expressions at the time), wars between states are no longer functional for capitalism. Lenin set out to demonstrate that this thesis was false. At the same time, Lenin had to counter a strangely similar argument that was being propounded by some revolutionaries, including Bukharin: Since capitalism has become fully international as an economic system, has transcended the bounds of the national state, merely national issues are no longer important, and revolutionaries should discard the "minimum program" of struggles for democracy and self-determination within the capitalist state. Lenin (1916b, 18) described this as 'imperialist economism': economism of a type that is peculiar to the imperialist epoch. ("The same old fundamental mistake of the same old Economism: inability to pose political questions.")

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 Split in Socialism" (1916d). His argument against the second is developed most fully in "The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism" (1916b), "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism" (1916c), and 'The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up" (1916e). These articles, together with Imperialism, present a coherent theory of capitalist society, and the capitalist world, in the era dominated--politically and socially as well as economically by monopoly capitalism. But this theory grew out of earlier theoretical work by Lenin, and later, after the revolution, was modified in significant ways into what can be thought of as Lenin's mature theory of imperialism. It is best, I think, to examine the theory-building process as a whole.

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 Russia (1899) is routinely cited as the classic description of this diffusion process, but this is a serious error. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia Lenin was describing a diffusion process within a state, a process of uneven economic development across a politically undifferentiated landscape, quite unlike a landscape of multiple states on which political boundaries and social forces modify, obstruct, and redirect economic flows (a process not reducible to "uneven development"). In various writings between 1903 and 1914, Lenin developed a strikingly different theory of economic and political tendencies at the world scale; this was the germ of his theory of imperialism. The spread of capitalism ignites bourgeois-national movements, producing a tendency toward the proliferation of independent national states. While these movements are primarily anti-feudal, they are also struggles against colonialism and semi-colonialism, hence counters to the spreading power and the accumulation strategy of metropolitan capitalism. Marxists who disagreed with Lenin argued the economistic, diffusionist position: against an inexorably expanding metropolitan-capitalist dominance, national movements generally are nonviable and unprogressive, and the "law of concentration"--that economies grow larger as capitalism matures--implies that states and their empires also will grow larger, moving toward the future worldwide socialist state. Lenin at first replied that Russia ("the prison-house of nations") was an exception to these tendencies, but he moved to the view that many national movements were likely to win out in all parts of the world except the advanced capitalist states and thus were a significant force the struggle against world capitalism, which thereby becomes not merely 'in situ' struggle between classes but one in which peripheral bourgeois states confront the advanced capitalist states. And he came to reject the idea that big states are progressive: "Everyone would laugh. . . .if, parallel with the law that small-scale production is ousted by large-scale production, there were presented another 'law'. . .of small states being ousted big ones" (Lenin 1916c, 49-50). The notion that a qualitatively new stage capitalism has arrived is still largely implicit in Lenin's writings before the beginning of the World War (but see Lenin, 1895-1896, 109; 1907, 81; 1908, 192). This is not yet a theory of imperialism but it contains most of the elements for such a theory.

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 Russia, self-determination and other democratic rights must still be upheld. Because imperialism is a superstructure on capitalism, the defeat of the one does not automatically eliminate the other, and therefore popular struggles of the former era are now part of the socialist revolution (Lenin, 1919, 168).

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 Third World liberation movements, Marxist and non-Marxist.

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 Willoughby dislikes. Lenin's theory, he says, fails to stress "the progressive features of... 'modernization'" (Willoughby, 1995, 329). It is 'not true that global capital accumulation must coerce the Third World into a position of permanent economic backwardness" (331), and there is no "inevitable necessity of the North-South divide" (332). Protectionism and 'opposition to the continued globalization of the world economy," such as Ross Perot's 'attempt to halt trade agreements"--meaning NAFTA--are ill-considered. And apparently there will be no 'ultimate breakdown of liberal capitalism" (332). Willoughby believes that capitalism, now fully international, is still quite progressive and free trade is diffusing its fruits to the Third World. Someone who holds such views cannot possibly consider Lenin's theory to be of any relevance today, however it may be described. And Willoughby's description is a caricature. Remember that it is based exclusively on Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (plus a passing reference to two 1920 articles). I will take up Willoughby's major assertions one by one.

1. Willoughby quotes Lenin's statement in Imperialism that, 'if it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism" (323) Willoughby comments on this "famous" statement as follows:

"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 Willoughby's, not Lenin's. In this essay, Lenin (with an eye to the censor) was trying to make the point that political imperialism is inherent in monopoly capitalism. The word 'imperialism" at that time was on everyone's lips as a term meaning colonial expansionism, military annexations, the enemy's 'imperialism" (as against our "defense of the fatherland"), etc. If such policies and actions were indeed inherent in monopoly capitalism--which Lenin saw as a total social system, not just a "mode of production"--then it would be perfectly proper, and politically to use the word 'imperialism" as a synonym for 'monopoly capitalism': a matter of usage, not axioms. (In fact Lenin also used the word in the other, more common ways.) Another verbal sleight of hand: if "imperialism is a stage of capitalism" then "imperialism is capitalism" and "eliminating imperialism requires the elimination of capitalism." As we saw, Lenin viewed imperialism as a superstructure on capitalism and expected the latter to persist after monopoly capitalism had collapsed; also, he advocated some alliances with the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations, introduced the New Economic Policy in Russia, etc. Willoughby wants to argue that imperialistic politics no longer characterize capitalism; but instead of saying that Lenin's theory predicts otherwise, he caricatures the theory and ridicules it as "verbal sleight of hand."

2. Willoughby argues that Lenin's theory is little more than "a succinct, synthetic popularization of the newly developed Marxian theory of imperialism (322). The main author of the latter theory, he says, was Hilferding, whose Finance Capital became "the consensus statement for most of the high priests of Marxism's 'golden age'" (324). The principal error here comes in the fact that Willoughby reads Lenin only from the Imperialism pamphlet. As we noted above, this work was indeed a popularization, and was "a specifically economic analysis." Much of this economic analysis did indeed come from Hilferding, Hobson, and (prewar) Kautsky. But the originality, importance, of Lenin's work stems mostly from the fact that it gave a comprehensive analysis of imperialism as a total social system.

3. Willoughby reads Lenin's theory from the Imperialism pamphlet, and attacks the theory as 'reductionist'. . . as explaining everything in terms economics. Well, economics is the topic of the pamphlet. Recall Lenin's preface: ". . .forced to confine myself strictly to an . . . economic analysis to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution . . . I must refer the reader . . .to the articles I wrote abroad..."

Willoughby, who does not refer to these articles, interprets "the few necessary observations on politics" as deductions from the theory: "Every [Leninist] argument about imperial politics rests on an economic law. The link between economic tendencies and political outcome is unproblematic" (325). The illogic here is self-evident. You look only at the economic part of a complex social theory, then you attack the whole theory for reducing everything to economics. Ironically, Willoughby's argument is itself redolent of economic reductionism. To modern economists, economic theory tends to focus on money, value, etc. To Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, et al., economics meant "economic base," comprising environment, resources, tools, labor, social relations of production, class struggle, and more; even politics and ideology crept in. Willoughby appeals to economics of the narrower sort rather more than Lenin does.

4. Willoughby, however, makes one argument about economic reductionism that has substance, though not validity. He asserts (unoriginally) that the state is partially autonomous, and accuses, not just Lenin but "the early Marxian tradition" in general, of "inability. . .to account theoretically for the autonomous coercive power of the state" (334). They reduce everything to economics. He does not argue, as many Marxists today do, that the capitalist state (in its various forms) is mostly responsive to the needs and demands of ruling classes though many other social and cultural forces are at work. He suggests that capitalism has only a limited relation to political power, citing the importance of state officials' interests, domestic political sentiments, the global balance of power, even personality, as major factors helping to explain politics. He may or may not be right, but this argument strays very far from the traditions of Marxism, Leninist and non-Leninist. First, Marxists assert only one determinism, which is normative, not economic: capitalism must give way either to socialism or to barbarism. Second, Marxists argue that the economic base, broadly defined (to include, for instance, class struggle and therefore the ideas and acts of people), is more important as a causal force in history than is any other major part of culture. If Willoughby denies these propositions, which he may or may not be doing -- I cannot tell from this text or his earlier study (Willoughby, 1986) -- then he is offering not a form of Marxism but an alternative to Marxism.


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 Europe, then would march, victorious, to the gates of Peking and beyond, spreading socialism across the world. Socialist theorists of the Second International saw things somewhat differently. Either before the World War (Bernstein) or later (Kautsky, Hilferding, Bauer), they came to believe, not only that capitalism is maturing into a fully international system (etc.), is diffusing progress and civilization to the periphery, but that capitalism at the center is not under siege: with the help of the proletariat (acting through the socialist parties in power, trade unions, Fabian societies, academic Marxists), capitalism was gradually ascending toward socialism. This is a classically diffusionist belief: progress at the center, diffusion of progress to the periphery.

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.

Willoughby believes that capitalism is progressive, the Third World is developing, and imperialism no longer really exists. Thus he takes his stand with other diffusionist Marxists, like Brenner (1977), Brewer (1980), and Warren (1980); and with many non-Marxist supporters of liberal capitalism, NAFTA, and the New World Order. Of course, we do not have to stand with Willoughby or with Lenin: there are alternative views. We choose for ourselves.


Department of Anthropology
Univesity of
Illinois at Chicago
West Harrison Street
Chicago, IL 60607-7139


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