Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism

Image: Arthur Jackson


Preface to the Brazilian edition of the book by Vladimir Ilyich Lêestate

“Imperialism / in all nakedness – / bare belly, / with dentures, / and the sea of ​​blood / is shallow – / devours countries, / raising bayonets. […] From there / Lenin / with a handful of comrades / rose above the world / and lifted us up / ideas / clearer than any fire, / the voice louder / than cannon fire” (Vladímir Mayakovsky, Vladimir Ilyich Lêestate).

Imperialism, higher stage of capitalism, presented in this edition with an impeccable translation directly from Russian, reinforces the Arsenal Lenin collection of Boitempo publishing house. More than one hundred years after its first publication, the weight that this work had on the international communist movement and the national liberation movements that shook the world after the Second World War is incalculable.

It is no coincidence that this has become one of the most influential political books of all time. Written in 1916, in the heat of the First World War, by the genius of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the work encouraged a vast discussion in the XNUMXth century, becoming a kind of guide for anyone who wanted to understand capitalism in its imperialist stage.

In the wake of the transformations that led to the debacle of the socialist field in the late 1980s, imperialism as an area of ​​study was left in the background. But not for long: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which inaugurated the new millennium, put the theme back on the agenda, and Lenin's analysis proved to be inescapable. It is not the case to make a summary of the book in this preface. This has already been done several times. Therefore, we chose to recall some issues and controversies involved in the writing of this work and contextualize the most recent debate on imperialism.


The debate in the Second International

At the end of the XNUMXth century, wars and colonialism were on the agenda. Friedrich Engels himself, in his last writings, raised the hypothesis of a world war.[I] The Second International, since its foundation in 1889, was strongly opposed to the wars and colonialism that, at that time, affected backward countries. At its fourth congress, in London, in 1896, the universal right to self-determination of all nations and opposition to colonial policies was approved. Resistance to the expansionism of the great powers gradually became one of the main banners of the internationalist movement of the working class. At the 1900 congress in Paris, colonialism was unanimously condemned, mainly because of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), which, with the imprisonment of women and children in concentration camps in South Africa, generated commotion. all around the world.

The anti-war and anti-colonial position was confirmed at the congresses in Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910) and Basel (1912). In the latter, a call to revolutionary struggle was approved in case war broke out.[ii] The leaders of the labor movement seemed aware of the danger that the outbreak of an imperialist war represented for the workers. The very notion that capitalism was experiencing a new stage, which came to be described as imperialist, and its risks to peace were also widely accepted, as shown by the studies of Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburgo and others.[iii]

However, an important change took place at the Stuttgart congress. Most members of the colonial commission understood that not all colonial policies should be disapproved. Under the leadership of Eduard Bernstein and Van Kol, the notion was created that certain policies carried out by more advanced nations could have a civilizing effect. A supposedly (and surprisingly!) humanized form of “positive” or “socialist” colonialism.[iv] In this debate, we see the opposition of Karl Kautsky, who is appalled by the term “socialist colonial policy”, and puts himself against the idea that only the European peoples would be capable of independent development, as the defenders of “positive” colonialism believed. ”.[v]

In the end, colonialism in all its aspects was rejected by the majority of the delegates, a resolution being passed against the barbarism of colonization and compelling the parliamentary representatives of the working class to reject the requests for a military budget. Rosa Luxemburgo, Julius Martóv and Lenin played a key role in the final draft of the resolution.[vi]

The First World War represented a crucial shift. Thus, according to Tamás Krausz, the outbreak of war demonstrated that “widely accepted and anti-Marxist Bernsteinism” was embedded in the Second International.[vii] A change in social democracy had taken place. The war, which had previously been denounced by the parties that made up the organization, at that moment obtained broad support from its parliamentary representatives. Germany's social democratic party, like most socialist parties, voted in favor of the war credits requested by their respective governments.

Lenin denounced that this betrayal of socialism meant the ideological and political bankruptcy of the International: “The Second International is dead, over come by opportunism” [The Second International is dead, it has been defeated by opportunism].[viii] Hence, the call to transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war was also a response to the opportunism of the International. Lenin had already noticed this deviation in the revolutionary movement.

For example, in 1912, Karl Kautsky had suggested that class struggle and economic conflicts could be managed through parliamentary means by advocating disarmament and advancing the creation of a “United States of Europe”.[ix] However, in the case of Kautsky, Lenin first chose not to polemicize. Kautsky had worked with Engels and become one of the leading authorities on Marxism in the world, as well as the leader and ideologue of the Second International. Such an authority would be advantageous to the Bolsheviks on several issues.[X]

The limit to Lenin's complacency was Karl Kautsky's attitude to war. The great name of German social democracy wrote, on September 11, 1914, that is, when the drums of the First War were already beating, an article in the magazine of the social democratic party of Germany, the Die Neue Zeit [The New Times], entitled Der Imperialismus [Imperialism]. O Die Neue Zeit it was the main means of disseminating Marxism and had enormous influence on the Second International. In the article, Kautsky supported the thesis that the imperialist powers could form a cartel that would lead to the maintenance of peace. This is because, according to him, the arms race and the costs of colonial expansion would reach a level that would harm the accumulation process itself, becoming an obstacle to the development of capitalism.

Therefore, there would be no need for countries to remain in a state of war, since this would contribute to a single sector of the bourgeoisie, the armaments sector. The dominance of the great monopolies over the economies of imperialist nations would lead to the renunciation of the arms race, that is, to the reduction of military expenditures in favor of the alliance for peace. In this view, capitalism would reach a certain point of development and organization that would attenuate its contradictions until war became unnecessary.

This level of development, in which there is a transfer of the cartelization of the economy of the developed countries to the international arena, was called by Kautsky “ultra-imperialism”.[xi] Imperialism would not mean an evolution of the capitalist mode of production, but a political choice – the preferred policy of financial capital –, contrary to the development needs of capitalism, in case it ended in wars.

This naive view of Kautsky on imperialism, as Lukács underlined12, was considered by Lenin to be opportunism, an adherence to the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. In 1915, in the preface to the book The world economy and imperialism, by Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin concluded that the Kautskian theory was not Marxist and had the objective of diluting the antagonisms that at that moment were exacerbated by the war[xii]. And as if that were not enough, Lenin considered that Kautsky, despite having broken with the social-democratic party of Germany for his support of the government, had a cowardly attitude in the face of controversy by defending abstention in the vote on war credits.[xiii]


A “Public Disclosure Test”

It is in this environment of serious split in the international labor movement, precisely in 1916, when he was in Zurich, that Lenin concludes Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, with the subtitle “dissemination essay to the public”. The preparatory sketchbook for the essay, with hundreds of references to books and articles, reveals the commitment and enthusiasm with which Lenin embarked on the quest to better understand the economic and political roots of imperialism. He wanted the book to be published legally in Russia, so he sought a “servile” language with few political comments so that he would not be the target of tsarist censorship.[xiv]

In any case, the book was published only the following year, after the Bolsheviks took power. But in the preface to the French and German editions, written in July 1920, Lenin, already the leader of the first proletarian revolution in history, does not spare the mob that he came to consider the enemy of socialism:

In this book, we pay special attention to the criticism of “Kautskyism”, that international ideological current that in all countries of the world was represented by the “most eminent theorists”, leaders of the Second International (Otto Bauer and company in Austria, Ramsay MacDonald and others in England, Albert Thomas in France etc. etc.) and an infinite number of socialists, reformists, pacifists, bourgeois democrats and clergymen.[xv]

The book has ten relatively short chapters, in which aspects of the functioning of capitalism in its new stage are unravelled. There is no place here for a detailed analysis of the issues raised in each one; only a few points that I consider essential will be dealt with.

First, for Lenin, imperialism is a specific stage of the capitalist mode of production, resulting from a substantial change in its organizational structure; the stage of monopoly capitalism. Initiated in the last quarter of the XNUMXth century, imperialism appears as a consequence of the intrinsic tendencies of the process of capital accumulation – in which its concentration and centralization prevail – and of the contradictions that arise from the class struggle in capitalism, as analyzed by Marx.

Therefore, imperialism is something new, not to be confused with the old empires. In Chapter VII, Lenin presents his definition: “If it were indispensable to give a definition as brief as possible of imperialism, it would be necessary to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism”.[xvi] At this particular stage, following in the wake of Rudolf Hilferding, Lenin recognizes finance capital as the core force of imperialism. It is precisely in the financial sphere that a quality change occurs in the system: contrary to the previous stage, in which industrial capital prevailed, the economic impulse of imperialism is in financial capital.

Second, in the imperialist stage, the export of capital gains prominence. The characteristic of the “old” capitalism, in which free competition prevailed, is the export of goods. The “new” capitalism, in which monopolies prevail, is characterized by the export of capital. The export of capital accentuates economic internationalization and, with it, competition between nation-states.

Thirdly, the question of the possibility of organizing capitalism to avoid the outbreak of wars. This is one of the main questions of the book. In addition to the preface to Bukharin's work that I mentioned earlier, Lenin had already discussed this on other occasions.[xvii] In opposition to Karl Kautsky, he demonstrates that international conflicts are inherent to the functioning of capitalism, although in some situations cooperation may predominate. The export of capital tends to promote economic growth in recipient countries.

Thus, the stability of the system is impossible, as uneven development causes changes in the correlation of forces between nations, with a tendency to erode the power of the center in relation to new centers of power with greater economic dynamism. In this case, unlike what is conventionally understood based on the so-called dependency theory, there is a structural tendency for more developed countries to have a lower rate of economic growth compared to less developed countries, in the capitalist center itself or on the periphery of the system. .[xviii]

The expansion of capital does not necessarily require the outbreak of wars, but these cannot be ruled out, in such a way that activities linked to the armament sector acquire a privileged position in national economies. The existence of external enemies – even invented ones – that justify military orders is part of the great powers game. In addition, the climate of permanent warmongering also benefits sectors of the economy that are not directly linked to the war industry, something that Kautsky seems not to have given much importance to.

Fourthly, it is worth remembering that Lenin's theoretical contribution to the study of the development of capitalism in the world was already found in two texts, “The so-called problem of markets”, from 1893, and “To characterize economic romanticism”, from 1897 , in addition to the classic work The development of capitalism in RussiaOf 1899.[xx] In these works, Lenin, still young, explains that capital is progressive and that the final objective of investments is the appreciation of capital, and not consumption, which is subordinated to the accumulation process. The search for foreign markets is not a result of difficulties in realizing surplus value, as Rosa Luxemburgo and the Russian populists defended.[xx]. Imperialism is also not a consequence of the falling rate of profit. Capital is progressive: it does not need to “wait” for the fall in the rate of profit to seek foreign markets or any other countertrend that one wants to consider. There is no structural limit that leads to economic stagnation. Being progressive, the limits of capital are found only in itself.[xxx]

Finally, one of the main elements that contributed to the book achieving an incomparable success with other works released at the time on the same subject is related to Lenin's emphasis on the issue of national oppression. He says: “National oppression and the tendency to annexations, that is to say, to the violation of national independence, are also particularly intensified”[xxiii]. In addition to the class struggle, the revolutionary movement should pay attention to the struggle for decolonization.

Lenin, who faced Russian tsarism, the most reactionary government in Europe, found in national oppression a potential factor for proletarian revolution, linking the class struggle with the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. It was not by chance that a large part of the national independence movements identified themselves with communism and the anti-imperialist struggle, especially after 1945, when the former colonial empires were dismantled.[xxiii]

It is always good to remember that the Chinese revolution of 1949, the greatest anti-colonial revolution in history, was led by a communist party strongly influenced by Lenin's ideas.

*Marcelo Pereira Fernandes is professor of economics at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ).



Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Translation: Editions Avante! And Paula Vaz de Almeida. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 192 pages.



[I] In Gustav Mayer's excellent biography of Engels there is a chapter on this. See Gustav Mayer, Friedrich Engels: a biography (trans. Pedro Davoglio, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020).

[ii] Edgard Carone, “The Congresses of the Second International, Bale, Switzerland – 1912”, Principles Magazine, n. 26, Aug.-Oct. 1992. Available at: .

[iii] Gyorgy Lukacs, Lênin: a study on the unity of his thought (trans. Rubens Enderle, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2012), p. 60.

[iv] José Luís Fiori, “Global power and nation: the left debate”, in José Luís Fiori (ed.), the global power (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2007, Estado de Sítio collection).

[v] Karl Kautsky, Socialism and Colonial Politics (London, Athol, 1975). Available in: . Bernstein's cynicism did not go unnoticed by Domenico Losurdo: “It is precisely the social-democratic leader who, after theorizing about a superior substantive legality based on the colonialist philosophy of history and the idea of ​​the imperial and civilizing mission of the great powers, goes on to express all its horror at the lack of respect for the rules of the game and the violence of the October Revolution”. See Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: between civilization and barbarism (transl. Bernardo Joffily and Soraya Barbosa da Silva, São Paulo, Anita Garibaldi, 2006), p. 30.

[vi] Edgard Carone, “The Congresses of the Second International, Stuttgart – 1907”, Principles Magazine, no. 24, Apr. 1992. Available at: .

[vii] Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (trans. Baltazar Pereira, Pedro Davoglio and Artur Renzo, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2017), p. 203.

[viii] Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Collected Works, v. 21 (Moscow, Progress, 1964), p. 40. According to Lukács: “The International is the organic expression of the community of interests of the world proletariat. The moment it is recognized as theoretically possible for workers to fight against workers in the service of the bourgeoisie, the International ceases to exist in practice” (György Lukács, Lêestate, cit., p. 75).

[ix] Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (eds.), Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I (Chicago, Haymarket, 2011), p. 64. Later, in 1915, Lenin referred to the slogan this way: "From the standpoint of the economic conditions of imperialism – ie, the export of capital and the division of the world by the 'advanced' and 'civilised' colonial powers – a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary [From the point of view of the economic conditions of imperialism – that is, the export of capital and the division of the world by the 'advanced' and 'civilized' colonial powers – a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary.] ”.

[X] Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, cit.

[xi] Karl Kautsky, “Imperialism”, in Aloisio Teixeira (org), Utopians, heretics and cursed: the forerunners of the social thought of our time (transl. Ana Paula Ornellas Mauriel et al., Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2002). 12 Gyorgy Lukacs, Lêestate, cit.

[xii] Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Preface”, in Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, The world economy and imperialism: economic outline (transl. Raul de Carvalho, 2nd ed., São Paulo, Nova Cultural, 1986).

[xiii] Same, Collected Works, v. 21, cit.; Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, Lênin: life and work (4th ed., Rio de Janeiro, Civilização Brasileira, 2017).

[xiv] Franco Andreucci, “The Colonial Question and Imperialism”, in Eric Hobsbawm (ed.), History of Marxism: Marxism in the Age of the Second International (transl. Carlos Nelson Coutinho and Luiz Sérgio N. Henriques, Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 1984).

[xv] See, in this volume, p. 29.

[xvi] See, in this volume, p. 113.

[xvii] We can cite, for example, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism”, in Collected Works, v. 23 (Moscow, Progress, 1964), p. 28-76; “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations

[xviii] Luis Fernandes, “Global transition and institutional rupture: the geopolitics of neologism in Brazil and Latin America”, Magazine Basic, no. 143, 2016, p. 30-40.

[xx] John Weeks, “Imperialism and the World Market”, in Tom Bottomore (ed.), Dictionary of Marxist Thought (transl. Waltensir Dutra, Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1988).

[xx] Marcelo Pereira Fernandes, “Capitalism as an expansive system: the controversy between Lenin and the populists”, Oikos, v. 16, 2017, p. 6-14.

[xxx] On this point, Lenin is completely faithful to Marx. It is worth quoting the following passage from Book III of O capital: "O real obstacle to capitalist production is the capital itself, that is, the fact that capital and its self-valorization appear as the starting point and the point of arrival, as the driving force and scope of production”. See Karl Marx, Capital: critique of political economy, Book III: The global process of capitalist production (trans. Rubens Enderle, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2017), p. 289.

[xxiii] See, in this volume, p. 147.

[xxiii] Diego Pautasso, Marcelo Pereira Fernandes and Gaio Doria, “Marxism and the national question: Losurdo and the national-international dialectic”, in João Quartim de Moraes (ed.), Losurdo: presence and permanence (São Paulo, Anita Garibaldi, 2020).

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