Imperialist Capitalism. The outbreak of World War I in 1914, and more especially the support of the war by the socialist parties of Western Europe, turned Lenin’s thought in a new direction. Up to 1914, though he had been a close student of all Marxian literature, his thought had centered on the problems of a socialist party in Russia.
The war put Marxism into the context of national and international politics, and the defection of Marxists from their internationalist and anti-patriotic professions proved that these were matters of primary concern for the strategy of revolution. The years between 1914 and the outbreak of the revolution in Russia were occupied by Lenin’s study of the imperialist evolution of Capitalism and its bearing on the socialist revolution.
The defection of the Western Marxists came as a shock to Lenin. He had taken at face value the revolutionary professions of German theorists like Karl Kautsky, and at first he simply refused to believe the report that the German party had voted for the war budget. When doubt was no longer possible, Kautsky became for Lenin the renegade.
Lenin was left as one of a mere handful of Marxists, including Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, who were prepared to welcome the defeat in war of their own country. This step Lenin was quite willing to take. From the point of view of the laboring class and the toiling masses of all the peoples of Russia, the lesser evil would be the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy and the army. His slogan was, Turn the imperialist war into a civil war, that is, into a proletarian revolution.
But the wholesale defection of the socialist parties forced him to come to closer terms with the revisionists, whom he had despised and abused but whose arguments he had never seriously studied. Marx’s predictions about the imminence of revolution, the increasing poverty of the working class, and the reduction of the lower middle class to the status of proletarians obviously had not come true, and though he liked to believe that the party leaders had betrayed the proletariat, could not blink the fact that the proletariat of Western Europe had not only permitted itself to be betrayed but in a sense had welcomed betrayal.
The proletariat, which according to Marxism was inherently revolutionary, had proved not to be revolutionary at all; and this was precisely what Bernstein’s argument had implied. Here then was an anomaly that Lenin must face how had it happened that capitalist industrialism had not produced a revolutionary proletariat in those countries where capitalism was most advanced?
Since he had no intention of giving up the theory, he must prove that Marxism still showed the proletarian revolution to be inevitable. He must show, then, that the proletariat of Western Europe was caught in one of the back washes that may occur in the evolution of world wide capitalism and that in time the normal course of development would be resumed. This was the purpose of his principal writings in 1915 and 1916, and these are the support for the official definition of his work, namely, that Leninism is Marxism in the epoch of imperialism.
In point of fact there was little of Lenin’s argument that was original with him. Imperialism and international capitalism were not new subjects, either for Marxists or non-Marxists, and by scientific standards Lenin’s analysis was inferior to that produced earlier by other Marxian scholars.
He emphasized strategy more than economic theory, and the weight of his emphasis fell on the side of showing that Marx’s conclusions about the revolutionary character of the proletariat were still valid. In short, he followed the long-established pattern set by Engels of admitting that Marx had underestimated the possibilities of development within the capitalist system.
The economic analysis ran briefly as follows. As the units of industry increase in size they tend to become monopolistic, and at some point in a developing capitalist economy monopoly comes to be its controlling characteristic. Business is organized more and more in trusts or cartels.
Within national units competition between individual entrepreneurs practically ceases, and the control of industry passes out of the hands of the producers of commodities and into the hands of financiers and bankers. Commercial capital is fused with banking capital, which tends more and more to be controlled by a financial oligarchy.
Within an economy thus controlled the anarchy which Marx attributed to capitalist competition is substantially reduced, and its contradictions are thus brought under control, but at an international level the result is quite different.
The system depends on the higher profits provided by cheap labor and cheap raw materials in underdeveloped countries and the higher returns from capital invested in these countries, and enlarged production creates a steady pressure for larger markets.
Consequently, though competition between entrepreneurs decreases, competition between nations or blocs of capitalist nations increases; tariffs become weapons in national trade wars; and as national politics moves in the direction of something like state socialism, international politics moves in the direction of a scramble between imperialist nations for undeveloped territories and populations to exploit. The result is imperialist war for the partition of as yet undeveloped countries and for the extension of colonial empires.
Reduced to lowest terms, Lenin concluded, a war such as that begun in 1914 is merely a struggle between syndicates of German capitalists, with their subsidiaries, and syndicates of British and French capitalists, with their subsidiaries, for the control of Africa. To be sure, capitalism develops unevenly.
Smaller combinations of capitalists skirmish around the edges of the main struggle for minor objectives. Russian capitalists hope to get control of Constantinople, and the Japanese hope to exploit China. In more backward nations like Serbia or India there are still bona fide nationalist movements such as occurred earlier in Europe.
Fundamentally, however, monopoly and finance capitalism are logical developments from free, competitive capitalism; political imperialism is a logical development of monopoly capitalism; and war is a logical development of imperialism. Hence imperialism is the highest stage of capitalist development and is a transitional stage leading to a higher communist economy and society.
Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental attributes of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental attributes began to be transformed into their opposites, when the features of a period of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system began to take shape and reveal themselves all along the line.
This theory, Lenin believed, serves to explain Act only the war but also the failure of Marx’s predictions of imminent proletarian revolution in countries with advanced industrial economies. For the high profits derived by capitalists from the exploitation of backward peoples enabled them to pay high wages to their working force at home.
Consequently European labor, especially skilled labor, has in fact enjoyed a rising standard of living. This, to be sure, has been purchased at the cost of a higher rate of exploitation practiced on unskilled labor in the colonial and underdeveloped countries.
In effect the European working class became partners in a world-wide system of exploitation and in some degree have shared the booty. Temporarily and locally, therefore, the class struggle has been mitigated, or capitalism has found a way to postpone the effects of its inherent contradictions.
The result has been a period in European history, fixed by Lenin between 1871 (the date of the last proletarian revolt in the Paris Commune) and 1914, when the European proletariat was infected with a petty-bourgeois ideology. It fell a victim to the illusion of the revisionists, that there can be a harmony of interests between capitalists and workers, and that economic evolution can go on by peaceful or reformist methods.
The year 1914, Lenin said, found the proletarian mass entirely disorganized and demoralized by the shifting of a minority of the best-situated, skilled and unionized workers to liberal, i.e., bourgeois politics. Naturally he regarded this as degenerate. The European working class has become respectable and in a sense parasitic.
Capitalism, too, has degenerated. It has ceased to be a constructive social force, as it had been before 1871; the bourgeoisie has become a decaying and reactionary class, mainly concerned to protect its vested interests and having a typically rentier ideology.
Indeed, Lenin seems to be on the point of proving too much-namely, that all European society, both capitalist and proletarian, has fallen into decay-for he certainly wished to conclude that the revolution is about to be resumed in the West. His evaluation of political democracy, also, now seems. to be more negative than in 1906, when he argued that it was the only road to socialism.
His attitude toward democracy was at all times ambivalent, like Marx’s in the Critique of the Gotha Program democracy is valuable only as a step toward socialism but it is a necessary step. Now Lenin tends to call it mere sham and hypocrisy. He cites wartime controls as proofs that the civil liberties are mere sops thrown to the populace and snatched away as soon as they endanger control by moneyed interests that alone have any real power in a bourgeois society. As will appear later Lenin’s estimate of democracy was to fall still lower.
The final point of Lenin’s case remained to be made to show, as he wished to do, that the European proletariat is still revolutionary and that, as he said, the socialist revolution is being furthered by the war. The convictions of a lifetime stood in the way of his seeing that his argument had opened another possibility, namely, that revolution in Western Europe might be long postponed, which would have cut the ground from under his policy of turning the imperialist war into a civil war.
What he does is merely to reiterate the general Marxian argument. Imperialism by its export of capital is hastening industrialism in the underdeveloped countries and is therefore extending capitalism. The fundamental nature of capitalism is not and cannot be changed. Its inherent contradictions have not been removed but only transformed, so they must reappear in a new guise. The imperialist ruling class, and labor as well, is divided into national groups with competing interests, and these divisions correspond to nothing in the system of production, which has become world-wide.
The ideology of national solidarity, the policies of tariff exclusion and of national monopoly, stand square across the path of expansion appropriate to the economic system, and inevitably the underlying forces of production will reassert their mastery over artificial restraints.
More specifically, Lenin apparently believed that these contradictions will now take two forms. First, capitalism will never be able to prevent or control depressions and crises, which he expected to be more frequent and more severe; they are an unconquerable weakness of a capitalist economy.
Second, he argued more definitely that imperialist nations cannot avoid war; the war begun in 1914 will be merely the first of a continuing series of wars between national rivals for imperial expansion. Thus Lenin suggested, though he did not develop, what became for later communists the standard proofs that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable; recurring wars and depressions must sap its power. Marx’s conclusions were thus substantially reinstated.
The Second Communist Manifesto, written by Trotsky and adopted by the Communist International in 1919, asserted that the spectacle of human suffering presented by the World War settled the academic controversy within the socialist movement over the theory of impoverishment. Lenin’s young friend Nikolai Bukharin summed up the conclusion as follows.
The War severs the last chain that binds the workers to the masters, their slavish submission to the imperialist state. The last limitation of the proletariat’s philosophy is being overcome; its clinging to the narrowness of the national state, its patriotism, The interests of the moment, the temporary advantage ac-ruing to it from the imperialist rabbles and farm its connections with the imperialist state, become of secondary importance compared with the lasting and general interests of the class as a whole, with the idea of a social revolution of the international proletariat which overthrows the dictatorship of finance capital with an armed hand, destroys its state apparatus and builds up a new power, a power of the workers against the bourgeoisie.
Despite the conviction with which Lenin asserted his conclusion, his argument as a whole presented the European proletariat in two quite contrary roles. It has been so quiescent for some forty years that Marx’s predictions of revolution failed; it is so revolutionary in 1915 that a revolution is on the point of breaking out.
Like Russian Marxists generally, Lenin had long credited the theory, for which Kautsky was mainly responsible, that Western Europe was ripe for revolution, and like Trotsky he was convinced that a Russian revolution could be permanent only if it were supported by revolution in the West.
In order to explain the socialist defection of 1914 he adopted the theory that the proletariat of the West has combined with its bourgeoisie to exploit the colonial peoples. Now he assumed that the war will reverse this attitude and make the Western proletariat the leader of the world proletariat in a revolt against their capitalist and imperialist oppressors.
Yet there seems to be no reason why the war should change the relative positions of the industrial proletariat in the West and the masses in the exploited undeveloped countries. It is hard to see on what Marxian principle Lenin concluded that the proletariat of Western Europe would at once become revolutionary, or indeed why it might not remain quiescent so long as the uneven development of capitalism left any non-industrial countries to exploit.
Apart from his confident but not especially well founded conviction of imminent revolution in Western Europe, what Lenin’s analysis passed on to the communist government he was about to found was a choice, it might calculate on inciting revolution in the West or it might with equal logic calculate on an indefinite period of coexistence with Western capitalism.
After 1917 Lenin freely predicted that war was inevitable between communist and non-communist countries. Consequently a theorist might now regard the controlling tension in world politics either as between capitalism and communism, or as among the capitalist countries, and sill be within the limits of Leninist orthodoxy.
Several other important changes in Marxism are more or less Clearly suggested by Lenin’s theory of imperialism but usually they are not fully or clearly worked out. After 1917 the word proletariat tended to get a meaning quite different from the technical sense given it by Marx. Expressions like the world proletariat, equivalent to the working people of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, are commonly used, though these people are clearly not for the most part a proletariat directly created by a system of capitalist production.
Capitalism has proletarianized immense masses of mankind. Imperialism has thrown these masses out of balance and brought them into revolutionary movement. The very concept of the term masses has undergone a change in recent years. What used to be regarded as the masses in the era of parliamentarism and trade unionism have now become the upper crust. Millions and millions of those who formerly stood outside political life are being transformed today into the revolutionary masses.
Lenin himself recognized that this amounted to a fundamental change in Marxism when he amended the most famous of all Marx’s slogans by inserting into it the words and oppressed nations, so that it should read Proletarians of all countries, and oppressed nations, unite. He explained:
Of course, from the point of view of the Communist Manifesto, this is wrong. But the Communist Manifesto was written under completely different conditions; and from the point of view of the present political situation, this is correct.
The strategy behind this change is clear it was intended to make common cause between communism and colonial peoples against the imperialist powers. It is equally clear, however, that these colonial peoples are not as a rule proletarians in Marx’s sense, since their economies are for the most part preindustrial and precapitalist.
The change suggested in Marxism is in the direction of that already made by Trotsky in 1906, when he argued that world-wide capitalism made revolution easier in a backward than in a highly industrialized society, and branded the traditional theory as primitive. By 1918 Lenin had come around to saying the same thing retrospectively, though he had often asserted the more usual opinion, but characteristically he now stated his revised opinion as if it were the correct interpretation.
Hence it would be quite in accord with Lenin’s theory of imperialism if, as was said in the preceding paragraph, the Western alliance of Capitalists and proletarians (in Marx’s sense) remained stable for a considerable period in highly industrialized countries In this case it would seem that the long-run alliance of a communist country would be not with the Western proletariat but with the underdeveloped countries.
In view of the ambivalent nature of Lenin’s scattered bits of theorizing about imperialism, it is perhaps permissible to sketch a kind of speculative Neo-Marxian theory of social evolution, quite different from the original Marxian tradition and yet somewhat remotely derivative from it.
Perhaps it would be closer to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution than to anything that Lenin ever clearly stated, and it no doubt seems more plausible because of the course followed by Russian Marxism after Lenin’s lifetime.
It should be clearly understood, however, that this is not properly history, because it cannot be identified with the views stated by any specific theorist. It merely seems to be a possible line of suggestion that Lenin opened up and that may enter into the speculations of Leninists.
A possible-Neo-Marxian theory of social evolution, instead of drawing its main distinction between social classes and explaining social change by tension between classes as Marx did, might draw its main distinction between peoples or societies-the capitalist, industrialized, highly evolved societies on one side and the underdeveloped, pre-Industrial or only partly industrial societies on the other.
Lenin in fact often used expressions like capitalist nations and proletarian nations. These two classes of nations might conceivably coexist and develop side by side over an indefinite period, though both the owners of industry and the working force of the capitalist nations would in a sense be parasitic on the exploitable underdeveloped nations. Of the two classes of nations the underdeveloped might be the more favorably situated, since they could take their technology ready made, as Trotsky said that Russia had been able to do.
The ideology of the more highly industrialized capitalist nations might tend to be more rigid, more conservative, and more devoted to protecting vested interests, as Lenin imputed to Western Europe a rentier ideology. The underdeveloped countries must adapt themselves to their capitalist rivals, must in self-defense develop an economic and a military power equal to that opposed to them, and if their ideology is indeed more flexible, they might construct an industrialized economy fully planned and executed under political guidance.
They need not reduplicate all the steps or make all the mistakes of the original capitalist model. They might be industrialized without capitalism, and since they develop unevenly socialism in one country would be a possibility. The underdeveloped countries would be mosaics of advanced and backward elements-primitive agriculture and advanced industrial technology, as in Tsarist Russia-and each would be a unique combination of factors, which a tactician would a have to consider each in its own nature.
Marxism would indeed be a method of analysis, as Trotsky said. Most persuasive of all, in view of the audience to which such a Neo-Marxism would be addressed, Russia would clearly stand in the forefront of progress, since she would be the model or pilot project, the head of a progressive East against a moribund West.
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