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Three Titans

Labor Action, 27 January 1947


Abe Victor

One of Lenin’s Greatest Achievements
Is His Still Valid Study of Imperialism


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 4, 27 January 1947, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It so happens that Lenin’s booklet Imperialism was exactly thirty years old several months ago; but it is not merely as an anniversary, however important the book, that Lenin’s Imperialism deserves renewed consideration. The problem of imperialism continues to plague all of humanity; the analysts of imperialism, on the other hand, shrink back into the safety of obscure jottings and protected musings about a world cancer which calls for boldness, for thoroughness and for the courage to face an unpleasant truth.

Analysis of the economic and political nature of imperialism, not merely by the sober and far-seeing advocates of world socialism, but even by the bourgeois economists, however deluded they were, was a growing, developing, internationally accepted project in the journals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The world in 1860 had passed far beyond the Imperium Romanum, the empire which Julius Caesar founded in 45 BC, when he flung the tentacles of his military machine and with them his personal power into all Roman countries, and entrenched this power by assuming the title “Imperator.” The world had, in fact, passed far beyond anything like the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, or of the Emperor Charlemagne of southwestern Europe.

Economists in the second half of the nineteenth century were concerned with the imperialism of the most highly developed bourgeois economies, the imperialism of the western nations, the imperialism which emerged directly from the structural character of finance capital.

Background to Imperialism

In the third volume of Capital, Karl Marx undertook, for the first time, to demonstrate the subdivision of capital into industrial, commercial and money capital. This was the beginning of the evolution of all modern analysis of imperialism. On the basis of the analysis furnished by Marx, Kautsky, Hilferding, Bauer and Cunow were able to develop the analysis of banking, the relation of the banks to monopoly capitalism, the centralization of the banking system, the export of capital abroad, and the subordination to foreign branch banking of the state power in smaller and less advanced countries. The German Social Democrats, who were great scholars and important contributors to the growth of Marxist political and economic theory, were unfortunately corrupted by the growth of opportunism in the European Social-Democracy. They were able to discover the nature of finance capital without realizing many of its direct political implications.

Hilferding’s book, Finance Capital, was one of the most important contributions to the development of economic research and theory in the field of imperialism, as was the book entitled Imperialism by the Englishman, Hobson.

In the spring of 1916, from his exile in Zurich, Switzerland, Lenin was able to secure a copy of J.A. Hobson’s book in spite of the difficulty in obtaining French and English literature. In preparation for his pamphlet he read Hobson, Hilferding and collected numerous statistical evidences from German periodicals which specialized in the analysis of the German market, banking system and financial operations. He then proceeded, in 125 pages, to compress the findings of both Hilferding and Hobson on the concentration of production and monopolies, on the banks and their role in the new finance capitalism, on finance capital and the financial oligarchy, on the export of capital, on the division of the world, and on the place of imperialism in history.

Lenin’s Great Study

Lenin, naturally, used only that data which was absolutely necessary to prove his thesis. He was forced, considering the limited size of his projected booklet and the censorship imposed on him, to leave out tremendous quantities of data which he had available. In addition, he had no access to other quantities of material because of the exigencies of the war. Since then, however, this work has been implemented by the last chapters of Lewis Corey’s Decline of American Capitalism and by other American economists who were profoundly influenced by the Marxist studies of the role of finance capital in international diplomacy, conflict and war.

Lenin’s book was destined, however, to play a tragic and somewhat ironic part in the development of recent Marxist politics. The primary concern of Hilferding, Hobson and Kautsky as well as of Lenin had been with capitalist imperialism, the imperialism of monopoly capitalism, of the great banking monopolies, of Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan and the United States. This is properly the problem of present-day capitalism. Lenin, however, never stated that imperialism was peculiar to capitalist society. In others of his writings, as well as in Imperialism, he stated that wars are proper to the economic system based on slavery and on feudalism as well, that there were imperialist wars on the basis of slavery. Lenin even cited the war between Rome and Carthage as an imperialist war on both sides.

“Every war in which both belligerent camps are fighting to oppress foreign countries or peoples and for the division of the booty, that is, over who shall oppress more and who shall plunder more, must be called imperialistic.”

When it is said of Imperialism that it created a division between the system preceding finance capitalism and the epoch of modern imperialism, what is meant is that the period of pre-monopolist capitalism in Western Europe was characterized predominantly by national wars. Anyone who concludes from this, however, that in all the preceding eras of history there were no imperialist wars generally, would be guilty of a complete misconception of history and a grave vulgarization of Lenin on imperialism. It would mean that the “colonial wars” which bear a great importance to the wars of the imperialist epoch, had been completely forgotten.

A New Modern Imperialism

In 1939 the modern world was startled by the appearance, in the midst of the “normal” and “understandable” bloody imperialism of the Western capitalist powers, of a throwback, a distorted version of the long since dead societies in which Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne had entrenched their power. Stalinist Russia entered into a war of bureaucratic expansion, of subjugation and oppression of other peoples. The Stalinist bureaucracy showed a decided interest, reminiscent of the modern Western monopolist banks, but also of the Eastern empire of Alexander, in the oil wells of the Western Ukraine, the copper and nickel mines of Finland, an interest in stocks of manufactured commodities stacked in the warehouses of Poland, and an important interest in the skilled and semi-skilled workers of the territories occupied by Russian troops. And then, as if guided by the whispers of the ghosts of the ancient Roman military governors themselves, the Stalinist regime made plans for placing a million ruthless Russian bureaucrats in the seats of power in the occupied East-Polish territories.

As a result of this new Russian imperialism, the people of Finland and Poland were pressured into intensifying their bourgeois-patriotic feelings instead of being taught to heighten their class-consciousness; they were driven into the political aura of their own ruling class, even the more reactionary sections of it, instead of being brought closer to the revolution; they became more antipathetic toward the principles, achievements and defense of the Russian Revolution instead of becoming more sympathetic toward them; the participation of Stalinist Russia in the attacks against Poland and Finland retarded the interests of the world socialist revolution and enormously strengthened the position of the modern bourgeois imperialist powers.

Whole sections of the revolutionary movement were bewildered by this new development in world politics. Lenin’s Imperialism, its analysis of finance capital in no way fitted the actions of Stalinist Russia. The fault, however, lay not with Lenin but with the literal and limited interpretation of his pamphlet by the more bureaucratic and conservative leaders of the socialist movement.

Lenin, however, had an imaginative and penetrating mind which he exercised without the fear that comes from long years of ignorant and biblical acceptance of doctrine. Having written Imperialism for the purpose of getting past the censor, Lenin, in his preface, advised his readers to substitute Russia for Japan and Finland, Poland, the Ukraine etc., for Korea;

Readers of Imperialism today would do well to stretch their imaginations even more, to understand that the investment of finance capital abroad differs from the plundering of occupied countries but that both forms of imperialism are possible, and that the peculiar conjunction of events which created bureaucratic collectivist Russia in the midst of a capitalist world made it possible for the modern form and the “sport” form of imperialism to exist side by side.

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