Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism
In 1916, V.I. Lenin wrote one of the most important of all Marxist analyses: Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. World War I was dealing death to millions, but few people understood what it was about. For that matter, many people today look without comprehension at the continuing wars .
Lenin's short 128 pages illuminate our understanding of present-day war and the international intrigues hiding under the ludicrous euphemism of "free trade." The booklet is an easy read, but there are two reasons that impatient students might want an even easier version:
1. The statistics used, while very timely in 1916, are old now
2. As was often the case, Lenin was forced to argue against misleading theoreticians who have now been discredited, first by Lenin in this booklet, and then by the passage of time and subsequent developments. The arguments may now be superfluous.
Previous modules have explained the basic roots of capitalism. In the present work, Lenin shows that capitalism had reached a qualitatively different stage of development. The simple schematics of supply and demand that, even now, make up college courses in economics, had long since become obsolete as monopoly capital replaced "free enterprise." By the beginning of the 20th century, prices were set by monopolistic collusion, not "the market." Massive monopolies expropriated their wealth through servile government officials rather than business know-how.
Lenin showed the truth of the new monopolistic relations with statistics from basic industry in the major industrialized countries. He was particularly interested in iron, steel, railroads, and electricity. Today, students might want to consider their own observations of such phenomena as home computer production, which took place in people's garages only a few years ago, but has matured into an oligopoly of a few giant corporations.
As companies combined into behemoths, their bankers assumed more and more importance, or the giant corporations became bankers. Banks and other financial institutions ("finance capital") came to control the substance of each economy in each industrialized country.
Once finance capital had completely taken over their home markets, they set about to penetrate the rest of the Planet Earth. The word "imperialism," which had formerly meant the conquest of territories by armies, was more likely to take the form of a giant loan with a great many strings attached. Since World War II, we can see this much more easily in the behavior of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which commands the economies of most of the non-industrialized world at the behest of the richer nations.
Penetration by finance capital went quickly, as Lenin shows with statistics from around 1870 to around 1900. By that time, the non-industrialized countries were thoroughly submissive. The main obstacle to further penetration by finance capital from a given country was - capital from other countries! In other words, finance capital from a few industrialized nations had saturated the world. Bankers from one nation, usually England, profitably controlled the finances and economic activities of dozens of less-developed countries. The dominant industrialized nation, using its economic control, could successfully keep capital from other nations out!
The world was divided among the imperialists, with England getting the largest share.
All of India's profits went to England. French bankers were taking over Tsarist Russia. Africa and much of Eastern Asia were formally divided. The United States was successfully driving the Europeans out of South America.
Even though the imperialists had already divided the world, they continued to compete. As their basic economic strength continued to vary, their "rightful share" changed over time. Thus, contradictions emerged which had to be settled and re-settled. Their ability to negotiate with each other was severely tested. Representatives from major capitalist nations may hold meetings and discussions, but their ultimate recourse is their military power.
World War I was fought to re-divide the planet among the imperialist powers. Virtually all subsequent wars have that same dynamic. They are originated by imperialist powers in order to maintain or obtain financial prerogatives over a given territory. When the industrialized nations have saturated all markets with their exports of capital, they are reduced to fighting one another. Despite their noble claims, the world's capitalists are essentially no different than mobsters using their "muscle" to gain or preserve their "turf."
Karl Kautsky was one of the so-called "Marxist theoreticians" of Lenin's day. He held forth the idea that the worldwide penetration of finance capital would eventually lead to a kind of "ultra nationalism" and a peaceful world government. This nonsense continues today. It is usually perpetrated by the very transnational corporations that are gobbling up the world, or by the petty politicians who serve them.
Lenin proved Kautsky wrong, but we should not need his arguments, as time and dozens of wars have already shown Kautsky's error. Capitalists cannot stop competing against each other. For most of the 20th century, capitalists tried to blame the Soviet Union for their wars, but even the implosion of the USSR did not cause the slightest hesitation in the regularity of capitalist aggression.
Any serious student of history should, by now, be able to see that imperialist aggression, worldwide exploitation, and war are built-in aspects of capitalism. Lenin showed that capitalists cannot do otherwise.
**Further Study: Take a look at U.S. Marine General Smedley Butler's interpretation of his own military career!
Michael Parenti has a long treatment of imperialism, especially in the classical old Roman sense, on Youtube. It is called "Lies Wars and Empire, Part 1." 2007, 57 minutes.
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