[Marxism] Imperialism before Lenin

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 9 07:46:02 MST 2012

Weekly Worker 904 Thursday March 08 2012

Imperialism before Lenin

Mike Macnair reviews: Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido (editors and 
translators) Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World 
War I Brill 2012, Historical Materialism book series, Vol 33, 
pp951, €149

Communist politics after 1924 began to be characterised by the 
cult of the personality of Lenin. The cults of the personalities 
of Stalin and Mao were, in a sense, merely offshoots (leading to 
increasingly bizarre imitative phenomena further down the line, 
from Enver Hoxha to ... Bob Avakian). Trotskyists responded, 
perhaps unconsciously, by creating a cult of the personality of 

The effect of these personality cults has largely been to cut the 
left off from any real knowledge of the historical development of 
its own common ideas as a collective product - and particularly of 
the real history of the Second International and the debates in 
the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which was the largest 
party, the model for others and had the most vigorous internal life.

For this real history there was substituted a caricature derived 
originally from the criticisms of the anarcho-syndicalist left, 
and the ‘mass action’ left of Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and 
others inside the International but influenced by the 
anarcho-syndicalists. These criticisms were glued together with a 
fictitious history of Bolshevism, which asserted its existence as 
an independent party from 1903 and retrojected some of the 
arguments Lenin offered after 1914, to make Lenin before 1914 - 
purely fictionally - into both an ally of the ‘mass action’ left, 
and an advocate of the sort of ‘monolithic’ conception of the 
party which emerged as a doctrine in 1921.[1]

The bourgeois academy was only too willing to promote this 
caricature, but with the opposing conclusion, that bureaucratic 
managerialism or ‘technocratic elitism’ is inevitable in ‘modern 
society’, calling to witness left-syndicalist, Weberian and later 
fascist Robert Michels’ Political parties (1911), a book still 
used in US ‘political science’ courses. The conclusion the 
academics draw is, of course, that, since the ‘mass action’ lefts 
were unrealistic, only the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the Second 
International, which argued for full engagement with the 
parliamentary politics of coalitions, offered a real ‘democratic’ 
alternative to the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy which the 
‘lefts’ described.

In relation to the question of imperialism, the result of the 
cut-off is that Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the highest 
stage of capitalism is treated as the beginning and the ABC of 
Marxist understanding of the issue. There may be grudging 
recognition of Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and world economy 
(1915), while Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance capital (1910), which 
substantially influenced Lenin, has been cited more often than 
read. Rosa Luxemburg’s The accumulation of capital (1913) has been 
acknowledged (and, indeed, its economic reasoning has, together 
with Keynes’s different underconsumptionism, profoundly influenced 
the Monthly Review school). But the context in which these works 
were written has largely been missing: the caricature substitutes 
for it.

In Witnesses to permanent revolution (2009), an earlier book in 
the same series, Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido provided 
English-speaking readers with a way behind the personality cult 
cut-off in relation to Trotsky and ‘permanent revolution’: a great 
deal of the context of other contemporary writers and writing on 
the topic. In Discovering imperialism, they do the same thing for 
the question under discussion. They publish 54 articles, sometimes 
abridged, or extracts from books, beginning with Max Beer on 
‘Modern English imperialism’ in 1897 and ending with Pannekoek on 
‘Imperialism and the tasks of the proletariat’ in 1916. A 93-page 
introduction, and individual introductions to most of the pieces, 
provide additional context. These introductory components are 
written broadly within the frame of the ‘orthodox’ left narrative; 
but not so as to do actual violence to the materials. An appendix 
offers a technical critique of the core of Luxemburg’s argument.

Overall, this is a really excellent book, which is deeply 
informative about the development of Marxist ideas about 
imperialism before Lenin’s famous text. The hardback price will 
put it out of most people’s reach, but it should be recommended to 
libraries. Haymarket Books have produced very much cheaper 
paperback editions of several books in the series,[2] and it is 
very much to be hoped that they will produce this one, too.

My response to the book in general is one of enthusiasm. To go 
through listing all the pieces translated would be tedious and to 
try to synthesise them fully would also take too long. So in the 
rest of this review I will look at three issues which reading it 
posed to me. The first is the editors’ choice of ‘start date’. The 
second is the belief that imperialism was a new phenomenon of the 
late 19th century in some sense larger than the imperialist 
ideology pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli, a broadly common feature 
of most of the Second International authors whose work is 
translated here, shared by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin and 
Lenin. The third is the evolution of Karl Kautsky’s position. 
Kautsky’s evolution is important to the history because, as Lars T 
Lih has demonstrated, Lenin’s underlying political approach was 
founded on Kautsky’s earlier work - which Lenin continued until 
very late in his life to champion - both against the later, 
renegade, Kautsky, and against the ‘mass action’ lefts (notably in 
Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder).

The end date of Discovering imperialism is 1916: the year in which 
Lenin’s book on the subject appeared. This is an obvious choice: 
writing on the issue of imperialism after the Russian Revolution 
would be profoundly different. The start date is 1897, but not 
quite consistently: Kautsky’s 1898 three-part series in Die Neue 
Zeit, ‘Colonialism old and new’ (parts 1 and 2) and ‘Kiaotshau’ 
(Jiaozhou), is absent, though mentioned. Shameless plug: Ben Lewis 
has translated this series and we hope to publish it in the near 

1897 is not a straightforward start date, because the issue was, 
in fact, already under discussion. The ‘revisionist controversy’ 
in which Eduard Bernstein published his notorious Fabian polemic 
against Marxism, The preconditions of socialism (1899), in fact 
began with an exchange about colonialism between Bernstein and 
British socialist Ernest Belfort Bax in 1896. Kautsky’s 1898 
series started as an intervention in the ‘revisionist 
controversy’, though it mutated rapidly into an argument against 
German imperial navalism and ended as a polemic against the German 
annexation of Jiaozhou.

Since Discovering imperialism was published, in fact, Daniel Gaido 
has noted what must be one of the very first socialist uses of the 
word ‘imperialism’ to mean ‘colonialism’ (Marx, in The civil war 
in France [1871], uses it to mean what leftists now call 
‘Bonapartism’ or the ‘strong state’).[3] This is Belfort Bax’s 
article ‘Imperialism v socialism’ in the first, February 1885, 
issue of The Commonweal, the paper of the recently founded 
Socialist League, whose most famous leaders were William Morris 
and Eleanor Marx Aveling. Already in 1885 Bax’s argument was - as 
he argued in 1896 - that imperialism results from the drive for 
external markets resulting from overproduction, and defeating it 
would intensify the contradictions of capitalism. His political 
conclusion in a certain sense displays the core of the standard 
far-left ‘Leninist’ approach, and is thus worth quoting:

“No, the foreign policy of the great international socialist party 
must be to break up these hideous race monopolies called empires, 
beginning in each case at home. Hence everything which makes for 
the disruption and disintegration of the empire to which he 
belongs must be welcomed by the socialist as an ally. It is his 
duty to urge on any movement tending in any way to dislocate the 
commercial relations of the world, knowing that every shock the 
modern complex commercial system suffers weakens it and brings its 
destruction nearer. This is the negative side of the foreign 
policy of socialism. The positive is embraced in a single 
sentence: to consolidate the union of the several national 
sections on the basis of firm and equal friendship, steadfast 
adherence to definite principle, and determination to present a 
solid front to the enemy.”[4]

Already in 1883, Kautsky had published in an early issue of Die 
Neue Zeit a polemic against Germany pursuing colonialism and 

The editorial choices which have produced the 1897 start date and 
the exclusion of Kautsky’s 1898 series are rational enough. The 
1896 Bernstein-Bax exchange has already been translated in H and 
JM Tudor’s collection on the ‘revisionist controversy’, Marxism 
and social democracy (1988, chapter 2). Kautsky’s 1898 series is 
long (and Discovering imperialism is already very long). And it 
consists overwhelmingly of an anglophile account of history 
between the 16th and 19th centuries, which would now be seen as 
pretty weak history: certainly, one long superseded as historical 
writing and, for that matter, as Marxist historical writing.

Nonetheless, it is significant that the mutation in the meaning of 
‘imperialism’, from Bonapartism to colonialism, began in England 
with Disraeli, and that it was Bax who seems to have first 
identified imperialism in this sense as a strategic problem for 
the workers’ movement.[6]

The reality is that, though ‘imperialism’ in the modern sense was 
new as a political ideology with Disraeli (like his ‘one-nation 
Conservatism’, of which it is the reverse side), this was not true 
of the economic and geopolitical practice it ideologised. This 
practice, the export of capital associated with financial 
operations, and steps to hold places overseas in political 
subordination for commercial purposes, whether by the direct 
seizure of territory, by making states dependent on loans, or by 
raising up local client groups to undermine regimes which were 
getting too autonomous, was already - for England and the 
Netherlands and to a lesser extent for France - old.
The free trade illusion

In 1609 Dutch author Hugo Grotius published the book Mare liberum 
- ‘the sea is free’ - arguing for a right in international law to 
travel and trade freely. This piece of legal ideology in fact 
reflected the mercantilist interests of the Dutch shipping and 
fishing industries, which were close to dominance in Europe and - 
in shipping - engaged in breaking into the closed trade 
territories of the Spanish-Portuguese empire.

The British shipping industry at this time was emergent rather 
than dominant. British author John Selden in 1635 published Mare 
clausum - ‘the sea is closed’ - arguing for a right to claim 
territorial waters, from which the Dutch could be excluded. 1651, 
after the fall of the monarchy, saw the first Navigation Act, 
restricting certain forms of trade to British ships. The 
Navigation Acts regime continued in force till 1849, though levels 
of enforcement varied sharply in the period.

By the 19th century, the British shipping industry was dominant. 
‘Free trade’ was therefore in the mercantilist interest of the 
shipping industry, as it had been for the Netherlands in the 
1600s. It was almost certainly incidental that the end of 
agricultural protectionism - the repeal of the corn laws - was 
demanded by domestic industrialists as a means of reducing wages, 
and by Liberal workers as a means of reducing the cost of living. 
Meanwhile, from the beginning to the end of the century the 
British state remained at the disposal of the shipping industry 
and the financial operators associated with it, and also to a 
lesser extent of - for example - the exporters of mining and 
railway equipment to Latin America from the 1820s on, and the 
financiers who lent the new Latin American states the funds to buy 
the capital equipment.

British world-dominance in the 19th century gave the political 
ideology of free trade a cachet and set it up as linked to 
liberalism as an alternative to the surviving anciens régimes. 
Manchester was the great centre of the ideology (Chicago succeeded 
it when the US became dominant). The belief that the dominance of 
industrial capital, liberalism and free trade went together as a 
package was an illusion produced by British world dominance.

It is a striking feature of most of the writings translated in 
Discovering imperialism that - as is also true of Kautsky’s 1898 
series - they completely buy the illusion that there was a real 
period of dominance of industrial capital, liberalism and free 
trade, as opposed to a period of the dominance of free trade as an 
ideology. There are only a few exceptions.

These are interesting. They are mostly authors who after August 
1914 zig-zagged sharply to the right, becoming social-chauvinists: 
Parvus (Alexander Helphand), Heinrich Cunow, Paul Lensch (and 
perhaps Max Beer, who worked for Parvus’s wartime Die Glocke, 
though he later moved to Moscow). The authors understandably do 
not include any of their writings from their social-chauvinist 
period. Perhaps it is to be inferred that their view was that, 
since imperialism and war were - they argued - necessary features 
of modern industrial capitalism, and Britain was in decline, a 
British defeat would represent progress?

In any case, it is worth noting that it was not only those on the 
right or the party leaderships who became social-chauvinists. As 
well as these, I have already mentioned Michels; and the most 
spectacular example was Michels’ inspiration after World War I, 
the pre-war ‘mass action left’ leader in Italy, Benito Mussolini.

In the majority of the articles, the emergence of imperialism as 
an ideology - for Britain the re-emergence, since the British had 
thought of themselves as controlling an empire of trade and 
production throughout the 18th century - is treated as requiring 
explanation by some new feature of capitalism, or by capitalist 
decline. Lenin’s Imperialism codified the idea for subsequent 
generations of the left.

Kautsky’s 1914 and 1915 articles printed as numbers 47 and 49 in 
this collection[7] are dreadful examples of muddle. The 1915 piece 
argues for a sentimental, neo-Kantian idea of clipping the claws 
of the capitalist nation-state tigers and restoring the imagined 
dominance of industrial capital, liberalism and free trade, in a 
world of nation-states without a top-dog state to keep order and 
provide a global reserve currency. Their disputes are to be 
settled by ‘courts of arbitration’, a precursor to today’s left 
illusions in the UN.

This muddle has both deep and shallow roots. The deep roots go 
back to Kautsky’s beginnings in the Kathedersozialist school of 
statist-nationalist socialism; to the illusion that national scale 
would be sufficient for the cooperative commonwealth, in The class 
struggle (1892); and to the illusions in parliamentarism as a form 
of democracy expressed in Parliamentarism, direct legislation and 
social democracy (1893).

It is the shallow roots which are more clearly displayed in this 
collection. Kautsky was to a considerable extent an intellectual 
hit-man for August Bebel (a central leader of the SPD until his 
death in 1913). Between the late 1890s and 1905, Bebel saw the 
principal danger affecting the SPD as coming from the right, and 
he pushed Kautsky to write polemics against them.[8] In addition 
Kautsky himself probably moved somewhat to the left in response to 
the Russian revolution of 1905. His most critical account of 
parliamentarism was offered in the series, ‘Republic and social 
democracy in France’ (1905), which could have been both a response 
to 1905 and a defence of Bebel against Jean Jaurès.[9]

Meanwhile, the arguments of the Austro-Marxists of Karl Renner and 
Otto Bauer in favour of a multinational state had emerged into the 
full light of day with the publication of Bauer’s The question of 
nationalities and social democracy in 1907, triggering more 
debate, notably Rosa Luxemburg’s 1908-09 polemic against the 
traditional self-determination slogan.[10] Kautsky intervened in 
this debate to defend the “self-determination of nations” and in 
doing so argued strongly that political democracy depended on the 
possession of a common state language.[11]

By 1910-11, the ‘mass action’ left had begun to emerge, and it 
attacked both the SPD Reichstag fraction and Kautsky: not only 
directly over the mass strike question, but also in pieces 
translated in Discovering imperialism from Luxemburg, Pannekoek 
and others (this particular debate at numbers 29-42). The 
Reichstag fraction had put forward proposals for international 
arms limitation agreements (which was new) and the establishment 
of international arbitration courts (which was already in the 1891 
Erfurt programme). The lefts argued that these proposals were 
utopian: the only alternative to imperialism and the drive towards 
war was mass action to pose the question of the working class 
taking power and bringing in socialism.

On the purely tactical issue posed by the arms limitation proposal 
it is by no means clear that the attack of the ‘lefts’ on the 
Reichstag fraction was correct. The substantial political effect 
of proposals for arms limitation at this period could have been 
exposure of the aggressive policy of the German imperialist state. 
It is not, I think, entirely accidental that Lensch went over to 
social-chauvinism, and that the argument that imperialism was 
inevitable became part of the armoury of the 
social-chauvinists.[12] The ‘mass strike line’, which was posed as 
an alternative to the SPD’s parliamentary tactic, really was 
ultra-left and the voice of an impatience which could easily tip 
over into an ‘actionism’ of the right - and did so, as I have 
already said, in Mussolini.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Kautsky at least reacted away from 
the arguments of the ‘lefts’ by retreating from the analysis of 
‘Republic and social democracy in France’ and from the language of 
The road to power (1909) in favour of an actual fetishism of the 
nation-state and its bureaucratic apparatus and of the 
parliamentary form. This fetishism is, quite clearly, already 
present in the arguments of 1911-12. It had, as I have said, roots 
in Kautsky’s earlier writings. But in Russia, where the 
‘actionist’ tendency of Vperyod had actually been marginalised, 
Lenin and others, whose own politics were built on Kautsky’s 
earlier politics, were able to move in the opposite direction to 
Kautsky’s shift of 1911-15.

As I said earlier, these are merely partial thoughts stimulated by 
reading Discovering imperialism. I have not discussed at all its 
material on Hilferding’s and Luxemburg’s economic theories. My 
final point is simple: this book should be as widely read on the 
left as possible. It opens up a vista of a much more complex 
debate and development than our ‘traditional’ left narratives of 
the issue allow us to see.

mike.macnair at weeklyworker.org.uk

1. On the aspect of the history of Bolshevism, see most recently 
Pham Binh, ‘Mangling the party of Lenin’ Weekly Worker February 2, 
and L Lih, ‘Falling out over a Cliff’, supplement Weekly Worker 
February 16.

2. www.haymarketbooks.org/category/hm-series.

3. The introduction to Discovering imperialism discusses the shift 
in meaning at pp5-8.

4. www.marxists.org/archive/bax/1885/02/imperialism.htm.

5. ‘Auswanderung und Kolonisation’ Neue Zeit Vol 1, pp365-70, 
395-404 (online at http://library.fes.de/cgi-bin/populo/nz.pl).

6. I leave aside Marx’s and Engels’ journalistic comments of 
various sorts. See in particular K Anderson Marx at the margins 
(Chicago 2010).

7. The first was also extracted in Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No3, 2003.

8. G Steenson Karl Kautsky: Marxism in the classical years 
(Pittsburgh, 1978) makes this case in detail from their 

9. An extract from this series translated by Ben Lewis was printed 
in Weekly Worker April 28 2011.

10. Bauer: translated by E Nimni, Minneapolis 2000; Luxemburg: 

11. Translated by Ben Lewis in two parts in Critique Vol 37, 
pp371-89 (2009) and Vol 38, pp143-63 (2010).

12. As can be seen from the articles of 1915 by both Kautsky and 
his critics (numbers 49-53).

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