Lenin's "Imperialism..."

Chris Bailey chrisbailey at gn.apc.org
Tue Aug 15 13:51:49 MDT 1995

OK Chris,

If you think I should go first I am willing to do so.
However, I still maintain that it is Will that is making an
unjustified assertion in saying that Lenin's position was "a powerful
description of the world economy" etc. Just because most of us in the
Marxist movement (including me of course) have been unthinkingly
saying things like that for a long time doesn't make it any less so.

It is time for a thorough reassessment of many things. In this context
I believe Will has been and is raising very pertinent questions. I
stress again that I strongly support what he is trying to do. At my
insistence the next issue of _New Interventions_ is carrying his
latest piece on workers' internationalism and is making it a central
theme (How's that for a subtle plug!).

However, I do think there is a problem Will is avoiding and it glares
through his mailing on this subject. How can you call for a thorough
reassessment of the *new stage* capitalism has reached whilst still
giving full backing to Lenin's "Imperialism, the *highest* stage of
capitalism". Lenin's position was that imperialism represented the
*final*, *decaying* stage of capitalism. This theme is totally central
to and inseparable from the whole theory.

Such questions must surely force us to re-examine Lenin's position. To
proceed to a new analysis of world capitalism without doing this would
be both dishonest and theoretically inadequate.

I believe that any serious examination of Lenin's theory of
imperialism reveals glaring problems with it. Not least of these is
the fact that it is based on totally inadequate data - mainly the
early writings of Hobson and a book by Hilferding. Much of Lenin's
interpretation of even these limited sources was drawn directly from
Bukharin's earlier book on imperialism and was therefore second hand.

Hobson's book was totally flawed as Eric Hobsbawm points out:

"Since British capital exports expanded enormously in the last third
of the century, and indeed the income from such investments became
essential for the British balance of payments, it was natural enough
to connect the 'new imperialism' with capital exports, as J A Hobson
did. But there is no denying that very little indeed went to the new
colonial empire: most of British foreign investment went to the
rapidly developing and generally old white-settler colonies, soon to
be recognized as virtually independent 'dominions' (Canada, Australia,
New Zealand, South Africa), and to what might be called 'honary'
dominions such as Argentina and Uruguay, not to mention the USA." _The
Age of Empire_. Page 66.

Hilferding's analysis of "finance capital" and the special role of the
banks was based almost entirely on unique developments in *German*
capitalism. These developments were not repeated in the same form
elsewhere. In Britain the financing of industry has traditionally been
raised via the stock market; the role of the banks has been secondary.
It was precisely the limited nature of the stock market in Germany
that gave the banks a special predominant role. I think Rakesh's
questions are very relevant here and need some thinking about. Finance
capital in so far as it exists as a separate entity has taken many
different forms. Hilferding's definition (adopted by Lenin) is based
on peculiar German developments.

Beginning from this totally flaky foundation Lenin attempted to
explain the collapse of the second international by postulating that
this was due to the existence of a 'labour aristocracy' financed by
imperialist 'super-profits'. I have spent more than thirty years as a
Marxist working in the British and international trade union movement.
This has often involved me in conflicts with the predominantly
nationalist ideology in the working class. I am now convinced that
Lenin's theory is *totally useless* as a guide to such work. It's
useless because its wrong, and worse still it actually promotes some
forms of nationalism as legitimate for socialists to support. As
Luxemburg correctly pointed out, there is a world of difference
between opposing national oppression, the duty of all socialists, and
advocating a "right to self determination" - a nationalist not a
socialist demand.

Lenin's theory of imperialism, supposedly analysing the development of
capitalism after Marx's death, has dominated the Marxist movement not
through the power of its analysis, but through the continued state
power of the Soviet bloc. That has now gone. Good. As Rosa Luxemburg
once said, "there is nothing more beneficial to revolution than plain
blunt truth."

The development of capitalism after Marx still needs to be understood.
In particular, we need to explain the prolonged growth of
protectionism and the increasing power of the nation state after 1870
which Marx did not anticipate. Lenin's theory of imperialism was
certainly an attempt to grasp this. It was, however, wrong and has
stood in the way of further attempts to comprehend the real

Chris Bailey

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