Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 4
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin was convinced that one could not make a correct political appraisal of the war without making clear the essence of imperialism in both its economic and political aspects. A theoretical understanding of imperialism was necessary for consistent political practice during the war. He therefore spent six months of very intensive research (January-June 1916) in writing a short book called Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Although it was written with an eye to the Tsarist censor, and therefore was phrased with extreme caution, using “that accursed Aesopian language,” it did not see the light of day until the middle of 1917 – after the February Revolution.

This little book is packed with a vast amount of data. Lenin quotes extensively from bourgeois economists to prove the incontrovertible facts of the nature of modern capitalism. He starts by describing the principal economic features of modern imperialism. In summing up, he lists the following five characteristics of the system:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves; and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed. [1]

One characteristic feature of capitalism today, Lenin argues, is its parasitism and decay,

the extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by “clipping coupons,” who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness. The export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism, still more completely isolates the rentiers from production and sets the seal of parasitism on the whole country that lives by exploiting the labor of several overseas countries and colonies. [2]

This sums up the purely economic features of imperialism. Lenin then points out the historical place of this stage of capitalism in relation to capitalism in general, and to the socialism of the future. He writes: “We have seen that in its economic essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism. This in itself determines its place in history, for monopoly that grows out of the soil of free competition, and precisely out of free competition, is the transition from the capitalist system to a higher socio-economic order.” [3] Imperialism must be defined as capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism. [4]

He goes on to define the relation between imperialism on the one hand and opportunism and social chauvinism in the labor movement on the other.

Imperialism, which means the partitioning of the world ... which means high monopoly profits for a handful of very rich countries, makes it economically possible to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and thereby fosters, gives shape to, and strengthens opportunism. [5]

The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others ... And so there is created ... [a] bond between imperialism and opportunism. [6]

This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labor aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings, and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. [7]

The fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism. [8]

The last chapter of the book is devoted to a crushing criticism of Kautsky’s liberal glossing of modern capitalism – “ultra-imperialism” – the belief that modern capitalism may lead to the world unity of the capitalists and hence to the banishing of wars. Contrary to Kautsky’s notion that the international cartels could represent a force for peace, Lenin argues that they are marked by a particular balance of forces between the monopolies; when the balance changes then renewed struggle along national lines must replace the agreements peacefully to divide the world market. [9]

The Need to Defend Lenin from His Admirers

As a result of the Stalinist cult of Lenin, almost canonical authority was invested in this short book, despite the fact that Lenin himself referred to it again and again as a pamphlet, and that its subtitle was A Popular Outline. He did not claim to have written an original work, but, as he readily acknowledged, was very much in debt to the works of the British Liberal John A. Hobson, author of Imperialism, and the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding, author of Das Finanzkapital, subtitled A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development.

To say that Lenin wrote a popular pamphlet does not mean that he did not work hard on it, researching for it very extensively. On the contrary. The Notebooks on Imperialism are a massive 739 pages, as against the short pamphlet he produced; he read and annotated 148 books and 232 articles. [10]

The book was brief and the majority of it was devoted to summarizing supporting information. The impact of the facts and figures and condensed theoretical points is very powerful simply because Lenin’s aim was very much narrower than that of his Marxist contemporaries who dealt with the same subject – Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin – and whose writings are of much more generalized theoretical interest. To grasp the meaning of Lenin’s book, unlike that of, let us say, Rosa Luxemburg’s (The Accumulation of Capital) or Hilferding’s, one does not have to be familiar with Marxist economic writings.

Lenin did not claim to have worked out a complete theory of imperialism in his book. The fact that it did not have the breadth of analysis of Luxemburg’s or Hilferding’s – the fact, for instance, that the problem of the decline of the rate of profit and the problem of the realization of surplus value, which for Rosa Luxemburg became so central, are not even mentioned in Lenin’s booklet – is not accidental. [1*] To the extent that Lenin dealt with the economy, he was much more interested in the effects of modern capitalism, and with the practical lessons the workers’ movement had to draw from the changes in modern capitalism.

How much Lenin’s Imperialism owed to the people who had studied modern capitalism a short time before – above all Hobson and Hilferding – is clear from reading the writings of these people. But even more directly than this, Lenin owed a great deal to Bukharin, his young colleague in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. In his Testament (December 23-24, 1922) Lenin called Bukharin the “biggest theoretician” of the Bolshevik Party. And without doubt Bukharin was the most versatile and well-read economist among the Bolsheviks. In 1915 he wrote a book called Imperialism and World Economy, to which Lenin wrote an introduction in December. The manuscript of Bukharin’s book was therefore in Lenin’s hands before Lenin worked on his Imperialism. A comparison of the two books shows that: (1) in terms of the actual description of modern capitalism Lenin is not original at all and borrows practically everything from Bukharin, and (2) the difference between the two books is radical – a difference between a theoretical treatise on imperialism and a political pamphlet on the same subject.

Lenin’s book was intended mainly to be an important political tract in a political battle. The tools he mobilized were just sufficient for his purpose, no more and no less. It aimed to make workers clear about the nature of the period in which they lived, and the tasks facing them. Lenin related the economic theories of imperialism to the basic political problems of the epoch, by making the economics a guideline for concrete action. The concentration of capital leading to monopolies and the division of the world between the imperialist powers led inevitably to wars. The general imperialist war, by engulfing millions of workers, relentlessly posed the harsh alternatives before the proletariat, not as war and peace, but as imperialist war or civil war against imperialism. Therefore real internationalism was inevitably rooted in revolutionary struggle against imperialism; no internationalism was compatible with reformism. Monopoly capitalism, by harshly exploiting the colonial peoples, and by pulling all nations into the orbit of the world economy, forced the oppressed nation to fight for its national independence, a fight that was becoming crucial to the fate of world imperialism.

To Marxists in the colonial countries – the worst victims of imperialism – Lenin’s book has been a powerful weapon of struggle.




1*. For a specific criticism of Lenin’s theory of imperialism see M. Kidron, Imperialism, Highest Stage But One, in Capitalism and Theory, London 1974, where it is argued that the concept of finance capital as borrowed from Hilferding describes economic conditions peculiar to Germany where the banks were massively involved in industrial financing and wielded great power over their clients (in Britain, the United States, and France the role of the banks in financing industry was incomparably smaller). Kidron makes a comparison between Lenin’s time and our own in regard to the role of capital exports – their direction, etc.

See also T. Cliff, Economic Roots of Reformism, in Socialist Review, 1965, where Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy is criticized as not compatible with actual historical data about the wages and conditions of the working class in imperialist countries. We shall return to this problem and elaborate on it in the next volume, when we deal with the Communist International.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, pp.266-67.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.277.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.298.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.302.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.281.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.301.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.194.

8. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.302.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.32, p.295.

10. L.G. Churchwood, Towards the understanding of Lenin’s Imperialism, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1959.


Last updated on 25.10.2007