Lenin’s analysis of imperialism – a pioneering work
Effective international cooperation relies on a proper understanding of the international social and economic situation. In this article, Lars Ulrik Thomsen defends Lenin's analysis of imperialism and state monopoly capitalism from those who believe it obsolete. The editorial board would appreciate contributions on this topic for our opinion section.
Currently fashionable theories on the left, such as the concept of transnational capital, propose that the concept of imperialism, and more specifically Lenin’s theory of imperialism, is out of date and irrelevant to the worldwide labour movement. However, careful consideration shows that Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which sees it as a stage of capitalist development associated with the rise of monopoly capital and an enhanced role for the state, is still the only solid foundation for grasping the nature of today’s capitalist world economy, even with all of the changes that have taken place since Lenin’s time.
The process of dialectical materialism can be compared with the work of an artist. He renders his motive on the canvas, and – if he is a gifted artist – he will not be satisfied by just reproducing that motive. He will try to get to the essence of his motive, either by emphasising or pitching part of it. In a figurative sense, what happens between the artist and his motive is the material process. Dialectical logic is the process in the head of the artist and, together with the reflection of reality, constitutes dialectical materialism.
This is beautifully expressed in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets (No 24):
Mine eye hath played the painter, and hath stell’d
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart; …
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
This is dialectics in arts at its best. It gives the full richness of reflection and one that we can also find in the theoretical works of the classics.
The American author Francis Fukuyama predicted in the 1990s that history had reached an end. Capitalism had prevailed as the final answer to all modes of production. But history in general is unpredictable and is not governed by fortune-tellers.
The major changes in capitalism, and the collapse of the socialist system in 1991, have led to political reaction and a major set-back for labour movement and democratic forces. But there is no reason to distrust the future or to fear the great changes which our time will experience. Capitalism and imperialism create the foundation for the coming socialist societies, not in a steady and evolutionary way, but in catastrophic leaps and through revolutions, from one type of formation to another.
Class struggles of social forces are the makers of history. If we look at the history of capitalism, we see that the French revolutions of the 19th century evolved in a contradictory fashion. The feudal system that collapsed in 1789 was reinstated with the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, but the bourgeois revolution still prevailed. We know similar events from all the other major European countries. What we see now in Russia and Eastern Europe is a capitalist restoration, with fatal consequences for the working people. But, like the French Bourbons, the power of the Russian oligarchs is only temporary.
1. Positivistic and scientific analysis
In the late 1990s and with the beginning of the new millennium, a number of new works on imperialism were published, primarily written by American, English and German authors. These writers are characterised by a positivistic outlook and, in contrast with Lenin, by a lack of understanding of dialectical materialism. Their analysis gives a picture of new tendencies in imperialism, but not in a scientific way. It is as if Lenin’s works, which were popular in the 1970s, have almost disappeared from the present debate. With a few exceptions, they are seen as irrelevant for contemporary analysis.
So anti-communism has achieved its goal of undermining the theoretical foundations of the labour movement. Our job must be to use the new publications on imperialism, as far as possible, and link them into a new analysis. The lack of investigation using Lenin’s method has had perceptible consequences for the labour movement. It leads to miscalculations, as for example in the concepts of liberalisation and globalisation.
In a scientific sense, these authors are giving an incorrect picture of the present stage of capitalism. The same applies to the theory that transnational capitalism has replaced state monopoly capitalism.
In contrast to these recent publications, a very interesting book appeared as long ago as 1968: Fritz Kumpf’s Problems of Dialectics in Lenin’s Analysis of Imperialism. At that time Kumpf was a lecturer in philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
In his book Kumpf investigates Lenin’s work and method, contributing to the development of the scientific analysis of imperialism. He starts by evaluating the most recent results in dialectical logic, and presents various opinions of Marxist lecturers on the subject. This is a very valuable approach, because every new investigation has to verify its concepts and categories.
Kumpf studies the process that has to be followed in the analysis, if the result is to be in accordance with philosophical logic. This includes the transition from the abstract to the concrete, and the relation between formal and dialectical logic in the investigation. The book gives us a clear impression of the depth and quality of Lenin’s work. It emphasises that every step in the analysis must follow a special procedure to make the laws of motion visible in capitalism.
This is the important difference between Lenin’s analysis and those of other authors. Lenin does not just deliver a number of pieces of factual information, but the actual substance of the matter is discovered and elaborated.
Kumpf also investigates the works of authors like Hilferding, Kautsky and Bukharin who were contemporary with Lenin. Kautsky came to quite different conclusions from Lenin, leading to a split in the labour movement, with consequences for our own time.
In the third chapter of his book, Kumpf analyses the new forms of state monopoly capitalism. He shows how – despite the efforts of the bourgeois parties – it is impossible to solve the inner contradictions of the system. His main thesis is that, although the monopolies undertake a form of planning, overall production is still anarchical. This is an important conclusion, because it gives us the key to understanding why society must change into a new formation.
Kumpf’s work has to be seen in the critical light of later philosophical writings. The way he examines the relationship between natural science and logic requires closer analysis. His apology for making dialectical logic into a separate discipline is in contradiction with the work of E V Ilyenkov and his Dialectical Logic.
2. Lenin’s work
What distinguishes the Marxist analysis from other methods? It does not simply register the eventual changes, but goes deeper and tries to show connections that are not visible to the naked eye. This was the method which Lenin developed in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Before he started his analysis of capitalism, Lenin studied the development of philosophy from antiquity to his own time. In particular he studied Hegel’s dialectics, which enabled him to develop a materialistic standpoint. Without these investigations, he would not have been able to solve the analysis of imperialism. One of his great achievements was the definition of dialectical logic:
“Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but the laws of development ‘of all material, natural and spiritual things’, i.e., of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition, i.e., the sum-total, the conclusion of the History of knowledge of the world.”
Lenin wrote Imperialism in the first half of 1916, claiming a number of developments in capitalism, which would have a decisive impact on the labour movement in the 20th century. His most important discovery was that the centralisation and concentration of capital leads to the formation of monopolies, which due to their position in the society become decisive in the general development of social production. As a result Lenin gave the following short definition: Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.
This definition was elaborated in the well-known 5 points which followed, rooted in the economic categories of those days. The condition for reaching this conclusion was a comprehensive theoretical study. This meant collecting bourgeois statistical data, studying bourgeois authors and making a thorough study of philosophy. New scientific discoveries had to be part of the definition and decide the content of our terminology. This, Lenin concluded, was the only way to present an adequate analysis.
In Imperialism, Lenin investigates the preceding period in the history of capitalism, i.e. the transition from free competition to the emergence of monopolies. Subsequently he analyses the changes in monopoly capitalism and the dominance of finance capital. By examining the accessible data, he shows how these changes in capitalism will have far-reaching consequences for labour. He concludes that the labour movement should not submit to imperialism, but on the contrary, sharpen its inner contradictions to the utmost. Only in this way can imperialism be fought and the transition to a higher level of society be accomplished.
3. The theory of state monopoly capitalism
Currently, the theory of state monopoly capitalism has almost been forgotten. Only a few economists, such as Gretchen Binus from Germany, are analysing the present economic crisis by using this method. By accepting the theory of neoliberalism and globalisation, most economists have concluded that it meant the termination of state monopoly capitalism. The misunderstanding arises because this theory was perceived in a narrow way and only seen in a specific form.
Monopolies and finance capital do not follow the same course under all political conditions. They are subject to the laws of development of capitalism, and the changes in the relative strength between the classes.
The present crisis in the world economy confirms that the theory of state monopoly capitalism is still valid. It is national governments that promote subsidies, political intervention and bailing out of the banks. They are trying to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. If the philosophy of neoliberalism were still in force, then national governments would not interfere in the way they do today.
What can we learn from Lenin’s work on imperialism? All the questions discussed in it became the substance of the most important questions which dominated the 20th century. That is why a new investigation has to build on the method of his work.
In today’s society the new forms of state monopoly capitalism are one of the central issues for the labour movement. These new forms are no longer limited by national borders, but defined by regional cooperation of states. That is why internationalism is so important for the labour movement and has to be developed in qualitatively new ways. Only by international cooperation will it be possible for the labour movement, to become a counterweight to imperialism and state monopoly capitalism. It must visualise the difference between the specific and the general: what is nationally conditioned and what has to be raised through common claims in international fora.
The present crisis is also the crisis of the state monopoly capitalist system. It is symbolised by the legendary Greek King Tantalos, who was chained in water up to his neck. Every time he wanted to drink, the water level sank. Today capitalism has generated unbelievable productive forces, which submerge the markets with commodities. But, if there is no purchasing power to keep the wheels running, millions of workers become redundant.
The depth of the present crisis is also rooted in the deregulation and liberalisation of the economy. This deregulation has been claimed as the proof that the state no longer has the same role as previously. In reality this policy was a means by which the imperial powers dominated smaller countries.
The critical reader will object that state regulation had already been replaced by monetarism in the 1980s. But the promised free competition and liberalisation of the markets is refuted by economic facts. In the European Union, 40 banks control 60 percent of the capital market. Given the close connections between the big banks, there are in fact roughly 10 banks that control 60 percent of the market.
This kind of monopolisation is to be seen in all vital sectors of the economy. It has been advancing by leaps and bounds, prohibiting effective competition and price control, to the detriment of consumers. Monopolisation has also been used to redistribute wealth in the society, which also tends to escalate the economic crises.
As a consequence of the current crisis, parties in the labour movement are proposing state intervention and subsidises for banks and private enterprises. In reality this is an attempt to reinstitute Keynesianism. But the relative success of that policy was under the quite different circumstances of the 1930s and the period after the Second World War. Just to take one aspect, the scientific and technical revolution makes many of his predictions for the economy non-applicable. In contrast to Marx, Keynes did not consider new inventions as part of his theory.
An alternative approach could be the anti-monopoly strategy, which was launched in the 1970s. The idea was to connect all democratic demands with control of the big monopolies, giving new rights to the people, and strengthening democratic influence on all decisions in society. This kind of policy is still applicable, but needs to be combined with a new analysis of the contradictions in state monopoly capitalism and imperialism.
4. A new analysis of imperialism
The present conditions promote Lenin’s work on imperialism, and give us new inspiration for a contemporary analysis. Lenin emphasised that his work was dominated by Tsarist censorship. Therefore he limited himself to the economic analysis of the war powers, and the world economy as a whole.
Since his time roughly 100 years have passed, with rapid developments in the economy and politics, which have changed the world decisively. One example is the emergence of a socialist camp, which in the 1980s comprised one third of the world’s population. Another is the scientific-technological revolution, and a third is the dislocation between the imperialist powers since Second World War.
The greatest achievement in science in the 20th century was the splitting of the atom. The communist and labour movement, together with the peace movement, made a tremendous effort in the 1950s to prevent an atomic disaster. This effort is an example to follow in the present fight against imperialism and its barbarism. On the matter of developing our theory according to the new productive forces, the international communist movement fell short, it was not able to develop our theory and methods accordingly.
The task that we face today is even greater, because the tensions in the state-monopoly capitalist system have accelerated immensely. All these conflicts, and the collapse of the socialist system, lead to new formations and currents in the labour movement.
In the preface to the French-German edition of Imperialism, Lenin mentioned a new international ideological current – Kautskyanism. Lenin’s criticism was directed towards Kautsky’s role in the Second International and its collapse in 1914.
Today we experience a new current in the labour movement – a relapse to utopian socialism, an idealistic current which has gained widespread influence. It is known by the name ‘New Left’ and emphasises the moral and ethical aspects in the movement, depreciating the socialist goal. Taking its inspiration from former Marxists, like the French philosopher André Gorz and others, it is hardly distinguishable from the revisionists of Eduard Bernstein’s time.
As Lenin had to fight Kauskyanism at the beginning of the 20th century, so we have to fight the utopian socialism of our century. A new analysis of imperialism can mean that the dialectical method will experience a rebirth. Only by developing new forms of dialectical materialism will it be possible to accomplish a true understanding of the laws of motion in our society.
Lars U Thomsen was born in 1946. After school days travels in Europe, Middle East and Africa he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic, obtaining a certificate in 1973. He became a member of The Communist Party of Denmark in 1971 and undertook Party training in Czechoslovakia.
His first book was published in 1998. The Tree of the people – The Tree of Fighting dealt with Communist Party history in WW2. Then followed a series of books on Danish and international history of capitalism, philosophy and class analysis.
In 2015 he became a member of the editorial board of the Communist Review, Britain.