KOREA COLUMN 20
Capitalism and Imperialism
As Marx explained in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism is a system which is subject to constant change and development. ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions… distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all others.’
In the run up to the First World War, i.e. twenty five to thirty years after Marx’s death, it became clear to most of the leading Marxist theorists that capitalism had entered a new stage of development, distinct and different in various ways from the capitalism analysed by Marx in Capital. Since one of the most obvious characteristics of the period was the struggle between the so-called ‘Great Powers’ (Britain, France, Germany, Russia etc.) to take over and colonise virtually the whole world, the term ‘imperialism’ was widely adopted as the name for this new phase of capitalism. Analysis of imperialism became an important task for Marxism, and that task became even more pressing when rivalry between the imperialist powers erupted into the mass slaughter of world war – the most destructive conflict in human history up to that point.
Many leading Marxists of the time – Hilferding, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, and Lenin – applied themselves to this project. Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1910), Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1915), and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy(1916), were particularly important contributions to an ongoing debate, but what was to prove by far the most influential analysis was provided by Lenin in his brochure Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Lenin’s work had significant limitations. By his own account it was only a ‘popular outline’ of the subject and, because it was designed to get past the Tsarist censorship, it dealt only with the economic features of imperialism and refrained from drawing political conclusions. Nevertheless it provided an extraordinarily clear and concise summary of imperialism’s essential characteristics and structure and of the theoretical underpinning of Lenin’s political opposition to the war and to imperialism, which became known by other means.
For Lenin ‘ Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general’ but it was also distinguished by five main features:
1. The replacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly and the domination of economic life by giant monopolies, cartels, trusts etc.
2. The merger of bank capital and industrial capital to produce ‘finance capital’ and the emergence of a financial oligarchy
3. A shift from the export of goods (typical of the previous phase of capitalism) to the export of capital, particularly to economically backward countries where profits are high, due to a scarcity of capital, and cheap labour, land and raw materials
4. The formation of international capitalist monopolies, which operate across the globe and divide the world among themselves.
5. Alongside this economic division, the complete territorial division of the world among the Great Powers, so that further expansion, further acquisition of colonies, was possible only through the forcible repartitioning of the world.
Clearly Lenin’s analysis both offered a Marxist explanation of the First World War, and supported his revolutionary opposition to it. Since war was the necessary consequence of imperialism and imperialism was capitalism in its latest stage, any ‘peace’ on a capitalist basis would only be a ‘truce’ before the next war. Real peace could be won only by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Throughout this analysis Lenin was keen to stress his differences with Kautsky, widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on Marxism, but whom Lenin viewed as a traitor since his failure to oppose the War in August 1914. Kautsky argued that imperialism was not a ‘stage’ of capitalism as such, or even an economic necessity for capitalism as a whole, but merely a ‘policy’ adopted under the influence of particular pro-imperialist capitalists. He also suggested that it was possible, even likely, that capitalism would soon enter a new ‘ultra-imperialist’ phase in which competition and conflict between rival monopolies and states would give way to agreement and peaceful co-operation. Lenin insisted that such views were both theoretically false, completely separating the politics of imperialism from its economics, and politically disastrous, blunting the struggle against war, imperialism and capitalism and leading directly to opportunism, reformism and class collaboration by sowing illusions in the possibility of a peaceful non- imperialist capitalism, freed of its contradictions.
Lenin’s economic analysis of imperialism must also be seen in the context of his political position on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. He had first developed this position in relation to the many oppressed nationalities within the Tsarist Empire – Latvians, Georgians, Ukrainians etc. Lenin insisted that revolutionaries in the oppressor country, i.e. Russia, had an absolute duty to defend the right of oppressed nations to secede if they chose to do so, and that this was the only basis on which the international unity of the working class could be achieved. Lenin extended this position to apply to colonial countries in general, arguing that imperialism would inevitably generate anti- imperialist struggles from Ireland to China, and that these would play a vital role in weakening the imperialist powers and assisting their overthrow by the working class. It was therefore necessary to establish an international alliance between the working class and the oppressed nations and people’s of the world against imperialism (without, of course, abandoning independent revolutionary socialist organisation).
The ninety one years since the publication of Lenin’s Imperialism have obviously witnessed enormous further changes in world capitalism, economically and politically – the depression of the thirties, the rise (and then fall) of fascism and Stalinism, the Second World War, the Cold war, the permanent arms economy and the post war boom, the retreat from colonialism, the return of crises in the seventies, globalisation and others too numerous to mention here. At times elements in Lenin’s analysis, e.g. the export of capital to underdeveloped countries, have become less relevant, and elements emphasised by other Marxists, such as the drawing together of the state and capital pointed to by Bukharin, have become more relevant. Nevertheless it is astonishing how well the core of Lenin’s analysis has stood the test of time and how much of it still applies to the world today.
We still live in a world dominated by giant capitalist corporations (far larger, of course, than in Lenin’s day) and imperialist states. Despite the illusions, peddled by the system’s ideologists, in a peaceful ‘new world order’ or a conflict free ‘end of history’ following the fall of the Soviet Union, or in the abolition of poverty and war by capitalist globalisation, imperialism remains warlike and anti-imperialist revolt grows. Despite the existence, in the shape of the US, of a single imperialist superpower, that power is already obliged to strategise against potential future threats such as China, or a resurgent Russia, and has already over reached itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, from our side, uncompromising opposition to imperialism and imperialist war remains absolutely central to socialist politics.
13 April 2007