Victor Serge

Lenin and Imperialism

(13 September 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 60 [38], 13 September 1923, pp. 659–660.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

At the time of the II Congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin made the journey to Petrograd in order to speak at the opening session of the congress. He spoke at some length, for two to three hours if I am not mistaken. Not in the manner of a public speaker, but like someone talking easily on a subject with which he is perfectly familiar, and who is anxious to hammer home an idea into the brains of his audience with blows of ever increasing strength. He made no oratorical efforts. But he analysed, described, appealed again and again to pure reason, and even more to sound ordinary common sense. He expressed no sentiments, but only adduced facts, impressive facts. He spoke with humor, and frequently concluded his demonstrations by expressive gestures of both hands. “Do you understand?” He smiled often, and his face, conspicuous with its prominent cheek bones and powerful forehead, was constantly lit up by a sharp laughing glance, full of wisdom, which swept across the meeting, sought out faces, and received understanding from the faces when found.

I listened to Lenin, and as an old anarchist I had the impression that here the greatness of revolutionary socialism was revealed to me in a much more effective form than in the most convincingly written book.

In a few brief strokes, Lenin outlined truly colossal pictures. The word “millions” was on his lips oftener than any other. The abstract human being, the metaphysician, the individual of the anarchist, scarcely existed for him. He calculated with millions and again with millions of human beings, with world-wide humanity, with the mighty social reality. He spoke constantly of the masses, and brought the different races before our mental vision. Armed with Keynes’ book, but seeing much further than this, he set forth the calamities which the Versailles peace treaty had already brought upon Europe, and those it is likely to bring in the future. Then he showed the surging up to new forms of social life of the races of Asia: 330 million Chinese, 328 million Hindus, 80 million Japanese, 45 million Malays .... millions and again millions of human beings, impelled forward by the lash of the plantation owner, the whip of the slaveholder, and the machine guns of the agents of “civilization” ... masses of human beings setting themselves slowly in motion ...

And suddenly we asked ourselves in amazement: “How is it possible that we socialists, anarchists, people of good will, could have failed to recognize all these great things for so many years? ” ...

Those comrades who read Lenin’s short work: Imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, now at last published in the French language, will receive, I believe, a similar impression to mine. This work which was written in the year 1915 has lost nothing of its value since. The war, the “peace” of Versailles, the post-war period, the decay of reformist socialism, are only further confirmations of all Lenin’s arguments of the year 1915. The scientific value of the methods employed by hint is thus brilliantly demonstrated; for only one who is thoroughly conversant with and understands the play of natural and social laws can foresee events as Lenin has done.

Pre-war times! The “socialists” pursued a miserable policy of vote catching. Party functionaries and deputies capable of seeing beyond the narrow limits of their constituencies or of parliamentary intrigue were few and far between. The anarchists declaimed the beautiful unsophisticated truths which they had learnt from Grave, Kropotkin, and Réclus, they fought against the old bourgeois society as isolated franc-tireurs, as dreamers, artists, vegetarians, or bandits. Syndicalism, joined by the most revolutionary elements of both tendencies, gradually developed simultaneously a theory and a practice of class warfare. The world hastened along a clearly mapped out path towards war. The majority of those who held themselves to be revolutionists were in reality carelessly and blindly drifting towards it.

They were lacking in a scientific method of research and thought. But this method already existed: revolutionary Marxism. But with the exception of the Russians, a minority of Germans, and a tiny minority of comrades to be met with here and there, scarcely anyone knew, or much less applied, this method But that great things may be accomplished by its aid is clearly and indisputably shown by this little work of Lenin’s on imperialism. The first thing which this work accomplishes is immensely to broaden and expand the horizon of all events. The petty happenings of daily life, the drama of your personal life, comrade, the ministerial crises all these are doubtless of great significance, but they depend on infinitely greater things. The capitalist world is a whole, and in this whole the ministers and all individuals are like the infinitesimally small protozoa of the ocean. Everything becomes and passes away. We are no revolutionists if we cannot recognize at one glance the great main factors ruling all the others, if we are not thoroughly permeated with the feeling of mighty changes.

The capitalist state of society is a system whose mechanism and functions, which are controlled and actuated by fixed laws, must be known to us. The revolutionist requires nothing more than the simple statement of these laws, a resume of the facts, to be in possession of a superior armour, of an unshakeable foundation for his convictions.

When, in the year 1915, so many of our comrades fought for “Right and Civilization” – and it is a heart-rending fact that many deliberately took part in the war –; when Sombat and Guesde were ministers in a cabinet of national defence; when Plechanov advocated defence of country; when Kropotkin, Cornelissen, and Malato called upon the anarchists to lead the fight for “democracy” against “Prussian militarism”, then Lenin quietly made his marginal notes to the works of the bourgeois political economists, took a row of figures here and there from their statistics, and formulated his diagnosis. Here is a small extract therefrom:

“We are experiencing a period of colonial world policy, which is closely bound up with the latest phase of capitalist development, the phase of finance capital.”

This epoch is the epoch of imperialism, the last stage, the predatory stage, of capitalism. This is to be seen from the following:

Trusts are being formed, which replace free commercial competition by monopoly, by economic dictatorship. In the United Slates the number of trusts in the year 1900, amounted to 185 and to 250 in 1907. In 1904 financial companies were in possession of 23.6% of all industrial enterprises, in 1909 25.6% (more than a quarter). In 1904 they employed 70.6% of the total number of wage workers, in 1909, 75.6% (more than three quarters). The same development may be observed outside of the United States. International trusts are being formed, it is these which drive the various states forward to the conquest of the world. In 1860 England possessed colonies covering an area of 2½ million square miles. By the year 1880 the area of her colonies had increased to 7.7 million square miles, and by the year 1889 to 9.3 millions. She now ruled over 309 million subjects as compared with only 145 thirty years earlier. During this same period France’s possessions increased from 0.2 to 3.7 million square miles, the number of her colonial subjects from 3.4 to 5.6 millions. In the year 1880, Germany possessed no colonies whatever. Nine years later she was exploiting almost 15 millions of black subjects. The distribution of the world draws to its close. But as the sharing out is not such as to satisfy the greed of the various robber states directed by high finance, war is bound to break out before long over the question of a different division of the spoil.

Imperialism by its colonial policy thus prepares the crisis which can bring about its own destruction – War. Imperialism would certainly be destroyed by this crisis, and thrown by the proletariat into the grave which it has dug for itself, were it not that the effects of its actions spread like a cancerous ulcer, and paralyse the revolutionary energies of the working class. Lenin shows colonial exploitation to be at the root of opportunism and reformism, and quotes in this regard the letter sent by Engels to Kautsky on December 12, 1882:

“You ask me what the English workers think of colonial policy. Precisely the same as they think about politics in general. No real labor party exists here. Here there are only radical conservatives and liberals, and the workers quietly enjoy with these the colonial monopoly and the goods monopoly possessed by England. What is the result of this? 1. The proletarian parties in England become bourgeois. 2. A section of this proletariat is likely to permit itself to be led by elements corrupted or at least paid by the bourgeoisie.”

These facts in themselves may be evident, and yet a Lenin was required to reveal this main cause of the impotence of the labor movement to the masses, in the light of the revolutionary fires of Russia. A Lenin was required to observe and describe the importance of the colonial problem and of the new revolutionary movements in the East Lenin is a revolutionary genius armed with a scientific method.

Last updated on 2 May 2023