[Classics] Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Introduction to the 2014 Edition by Alan Woods

The publication of a new edition of Lenin’s Imperialism could scarcely come at a more appropriate time. No book has ever explained the phenomena of modern capitalism better than this. All of Lenin’s predictions concerning the concentration of capital, the dominance of the banks and finance capital, the growing antagonism between nation states and the inevitability of war arising out of the contradictions of imperialism have been shown to be true by the entire history of the last 100 years.

What is imperialism?

It is possible to argue that certain kinds of imperialism are to be found in the pre-capitalist period and even in the world of antiquity, such as the Roman Empire. This involved the conquest, enslavement and plunder of foreign colonies. This primitive kind of imperialism can be encountered even in the modern world (the tsarist empire was in fact an example of this). However, the phenomenon underwent a fundamental transformation under capitalism. Lenin provides a scientific definition of imperialism in the modern epoch. He writes:

If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up. (Lenin’s Collected Works,[1] vol. 22, p. 266.)

Lenin explains the principal stages in the history of monopolies as follows:

(1) 1860-70, the highest stage, the apex of development of free competition; monopoly is in the barely discernible, embryonic stage. (2) After the crisis of 1873, a lengthy period of development of cartels; but they are still the exception. They are not yet durable. They are still a transitory phenomenon. (3) The boom at the end of the nineteenth century and the crisis of 1900-03. Cartels become one of the foundations of the whole of economic life. Capitalism has been transformed into imperialism. (LCW, vol. 22, p. 202.)

Finally, he arrives at the following definition of the most basic features of imperialism in the modern epoch:

(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. (LCW, vol. 22, pp. 266-7.)

Concentration of Capital

Already in the pages of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that free competition inevitably gives rise to monopoly and the concentration of capital in a few giant enterprises. This brilliant prediction was made at a time when capitalism had only really developed in England, and even there no large-scale enterprises yet existed. In France the overwhelming majority of factories were small enterprises employing only a few workers well into the twentieth century.

No aspect of Marx’s economic theories has been subject to more ferocious attacks by bourgeois economists than his prediction that free enterprise inevitably ends up in monopoly capitalism. For decades economists have denied this claim, arguing that the main tendency of modern capitalism was to promote the development of small and medium enterprises (‘small is beautiful’). But the entire course of economic developments over the last 150 years proved precisely the opposite.

Although this process did not culminate during the lifetime of Marx, Lenin was in a position to analyse it in great detail, using the vast amount of statistics at his disposal. In Imperialism he outlines the process through which capitalism becomes monopoly capitalism. He provides an exhaustive list of statistics, indicating the domination of the world economy by a small number of big banks and trusts. In recent decades, this process of concentration of capital has assumed an even more intense momentum.

The Forbes Global 2000 is an annual ranking of the largest publicly listed companies in the world. Together, these 2000 companies employ eighty-seven million people, own $159 trillion in assets, and generate $38 trillion in revenues annually – or approximately fifty-one per cent of the world’s GDP. As a reflection of the globalisation of the world, and the growing influence of emerging markets, the footprint of the Global 2000 has grown. In 2004, companies came from fifty-one markets, but by 2013 this had grown to sixty-three markets.

Japan, with 251 members, was the second largest presence on the list, with mainland China (136 members) emerging as the third largest country in terms of membership. Significantly, two Chinese companies are now at the top of the Forbes Global 2000 for the first time in history. The government-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) usurped Exxon Mobil as the world’s biggest company in 2013, while another Chinese bank, China Construction Bank, moved up eleven spots to number two.

Regionally, Asia-Pacific had the greatest number of companies listed (715 total members), followed by Europe, the Middle East & Africa-EMEA (606), the US (543) and the Americas (143). Asia-Pacific, the biggest region, led all regions in sales growth (up eight per cent) and asset growth (up fifteen per cent) as well. The US on the other hand, led in profit growth (up four per cent), earning an aggregate $876 billion in profits, and market value growth (eleven per cent), with an aggregate value of $14.8 trillion; while the EMEA generated the most sales, a combined $13.3 trillion, and held the most assets with $64 trillion.

While the ranking of companies from other countries has increased (notably China), US companies continue to dominate the list. Despite having 208 fewer members than in 2004, when the Forbes Global 2000 was first published, the US’ total of 543 companies in the 2013 list was its highest number since 2009. Thus, US imperialism remains the dominant force on the planet.

The power of finance capital

Lenin further explains that in the stage of imperialist monopoly capitalism, the entire economy is under the domination of the banks and finance capital:

The connections between the banks and industrial enterprises, with their new content, their new forms and their new organs, namely, the big banks which are organised on both a centralised and a decentralised basis, were scarcely a characteristic economic phenomenon before the nineties; in one sense, indeed, this initial date may be advanced to the year 1897, when the important mergers took place and when, for the first time, the new form of decentralised organisation was introduced to suit the industrial policy of the banks. This starting point could perhaps be placed at an even later date, for it was the crisis of 1900 that enormously accelerated and intensified the process of concentration of industry and of banking, consolidated that process, for the first time transformed the connection with industry into the actual monopoly of the big banks, and made this connection much closer and more active.

Thus, the twentieth century marks the turning point from the old capitalism to the new, from the domination of capital in general to the domination of finance capital. (LCW, vol. 22, pp. 225-6.)

How strikingly relevant these words are to the present situation! Today, over one hundred years after Lenin wrote Imperialism, the domination of the banks and finance capital is a hundred times greater. The stranglehold of the big banks and their parasitic and exploitative nature was exposed to the whole world by the crisis of 2008. The scandalous bailouts, involving trillions of dollars of tax-payers money, were handed out to the banks by governments. This outrageous subsidy of the rich by the poor is the clearest possible example of the fusion of the big corporations and banks with the state, which lies at the heart of Lenin’s definition of imperialism.

It is characteristic of capitalism in general that the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production, that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital, and that the rentier who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital, is separated from the entrepreneur and from all who are directly concerned in the management of capital. Imperialism, or the domination of finance capital, is that highest stage of capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions. The supremacy of finance capital over all other forms of capital means the predominance of the rentier and of the financial oligarchy; it means that a small number of financially ‘powerful’ states stand out among all the rest. (LCW, vol. 22, pp. 238-9.)

This is what Lenin wrote in Imperialism. What is the position today? In the Forbes Global list of the 2000 largest companies, banks and other financial institutions accounted for the largest number of companies (469 members); with the next three biggest industries by membership: oil and gas (124), materials (122) and insurance (109).

They say that the world is shrinking, but the banks, which are the real masters of the global economy are certainly not. The financial crisis of 2008, which began in the banking sector, has not halted the rising wealth and power of the world’s largest banks, which now have combined assets of about $25.5 trillion. Five years after being bailed out by the federal government, the US banking system is generating record profits. Last year alone JPMorgan, the country’s biggest bank, earned $24.4 billion in net income. Yet seventy-seven per cent of this net income of JPMorgan (and other banks) comes from government subsidies.

This fact completely exposes the myth of ‘free competition’ and ‘free market economics’. The big banks are closely entwined with the state and would not survive for a day without massive injections of public money. Vast amounts of money that are filched from the pockets of the taxpayers are appropriated by the bankers who use the money, not to expand production and create employment, but to enrich themselves and speculate on the stock exchange at the public expense.

In this strange Alice in Wonderland world, the poor subsidise the rich. It is a case of Robin Hood in reverse. Nothing illustrates the decadent and parasitic nature of modern capitalism more than the complete domination of finance capital. It is an unanswerable argument in favour of the expropriation of the big banks and monopolies and the reorganisation of society on the lines of a socialist planned economy.


Just as bourgeois economists stubbornly denied the concentration of capital, so the bourgeois sociologists, for the same reason, attempted to deny the parallel process of polarisation of classes in society that Marx had predicted. In a famous passage in the first volume of Capital he wrote:

Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.

How indignantly did the bourgeois sociologists protest against these claims! How they ridiculed and mocked the idea that capitalism leads to a growing polarisation between rich and poor. They wrote volume after volume filled to bursting with a mass of statistics that attempted to prove that the working class had, in fact, disappeared, that we were ‘all middle class now’, that the free market economy does not impoverish the masses but enriches them and that it was a very good thing for the rich to grow richer because a portion of their wealth would eventually ‘trickle down’ to the poor, thus rendering poverty a thing of the past. Thus, everything would be for the best in the best of all capitalist worlds.

So much for the theories of the bourgeois economists and sociologists. But the facts tell another story and facts, as they say, are stubborn things. The recently published book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by the French economist Thomas Piketty has provoked a fierce controversy. Although the author is not a Marxist (he says he has never read Capital) and his ‘solutions’ to the problem of inequality do not go beyond the most timid Keynesian recipes, Piketty has been the target of furious attacks. His ‘crime’ was to point out that the rate of return on capital in capitalist economies tends to be higher than the growth rate, leading to a concentration of wealth and growing inequality, something that cannot be denied.

The concentration of capital signifies an immense accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of obscenely rich individuals and a constantly increasing number of people that struggle to survive on starvation or semi-starvation levels of existence. In a global population of seven billion, a mere handful (2,170 people) fall into the category of extreme wealth. With a typical net worth of £1.79 billion each, together they have a combined value of $6.55 trillion – larger than the GDP of Britain. Two-thirds of billionaires have a ‘self-made’ fortune, but a further one-fifth have inherited their money.

The charity Oxfam recently revealed that the richest eighty-five people have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion – a truly shocking fact for anybody with an ounce of understanding. Thus, Marx’s predictions concerning the concentration of capital and the “accumulation of wealth at one pole and an accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole” has been corroborated with laboratory accuracy.

Material wealth begets power. Never in history has so much power been concentrated in so few hands. Democratic forms are turned into an empty husk, while the real power is wielded by tiny elites of bankers and capitalists who control and manipulate governments according to their interests. Government and big business are increasingly fused in oligarchic rule, thinly disguised with the formal aspect of parliamentary government. In the US, over eighty per cent of congressmen are millionaires and, to become president, one has either to be a billionaire or at least have the financial backing of several billionaires.

In formally democratic countries like Britain, power has passed from parliament to the Cabinet and from the Cabinet to a tiny clique of unelected bureaucrats, advisers and public relations experts around the Prime Minister. The ‘free press’ is owned and controlled by a handful of super-rich proprietors like Murdoch. Democracy increasingly becomes a meaningless word. In countries like Mexico, where politicians are bought and sold like sacks of sugar and the rigging of elections has been turned into a fine art, the fraudulent nature of bourgeois democracy is, of course, clear to everyone. Everywhere the rich rule and the poor are expected to bow their head submissively to the yoke of capital.

Has imperialism changed its nature?

In Lenin’s day imperialism manifested itself in the direct rule over colonies by the imperialist powers. British imperialism owned almost half of the globe. It plundered the wealth of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and also had a stronghold over many countries in Latin America. It was in order to break the world monopoly of British imperialism and secure a re-division of global power that the German imperialists launched the First World War. The other powers all participated eagerly in this struggle to carve up the world and seize colonial possessions.

This included tsarist Russia, despite the fact that it was an economically backward semi-feudal country. Tsarist Russia never exported a single kopek of capital. Its imperialism was more similar to the ancient kind: based on the seizure of foreign territories (Poland is the obvious example) and territorial expansion (the conquest of the Caucasus and Central Asia). Tsarist Russia, to use Lenin’s phrase, was a veritable prison house of nations that it conquered, enslaved and plundered. Yet Russia itself was financially dependent on France and other imperialist states. Its economic backwardness and dependence on foreign capital did not prevent Lenin from placing it among the five main imperialist powers.

This situation changed radically after 1945. The October Revolution overthrew tsarism and gave a powerful impulse to the movements for national liberation of the oppressed colonial peoples. The Second World War shook the power of the old imperialist states. Britain and France emerged weakened by the war, while the USA and the USSR became the dominant powers. The upsurge of the colonial revolutions was one of the greatest events in human history.

Hundreds of millions of human beings, who had been condemned to the role of colonial slaves, rose up against their masters in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The magnificent Chinese revolution and the national liberation of India, Indonesia and other countries marked an historic change. However, the achievement of national liberation – although a great step forward – did not solve the problems for the exploited masses. On the contrary, in many ways they were exacerbated.

Today, more than seven decades after the Second World War, the stranglehold of imperialism over the former colonial countries is even greater than it was in the past. The only difference is that, instead of direct military-bureaucratic control, imperialism exercises its domination indirectly, through the mechanisms of world trade, unequal exchanges, foreign ‘aid’, the interest on loans, etc. The former colonial countries remained enslaved to imperialism, although their chains are now invisible ones.

Globalisation is a word that hides the reality of the systematic plunder of the ex-colonial countries. The latter are forced to open their markets to a flood of foreign goods that ruin their local industries, cripple their economies and drain away their wealth. Giant transnational companies open factories in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam where workers are subjected to the most brutal exploitation in slave-like conditions for starvation wages to produce jeans and Nike shoes to swell the surplus value extracted by the bloodsuckers. Disasters like Bhopal and the recent fire in a Bangladeshi textile factory devastate whole communities. The bosses of western companies weep crocodile tears and continue to fill their coffers with the products of the blood, sweat and tears of millions of colonial slaves.

Developing countries are crushed under the burden of debt and trade policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO). The developing world now spends $1.3 on debt repayment for every $1 it receives in grants. Nigeria borrowed around $5 billion and has paid about $16 billion, but still owes $28 billion. That $28 billion came about due to bias in the foreign creditors’ interest rates.

The burden of debts leaves the poorest countries in the world with nothing to spend on basic needs like health, education and infrastructure. To take just one example, in 1997 Zambia spent forty per cent of its total budget to repay foreign debt, and only seven per cent for basic services like vaccines for children. The situation in Pakistan is even worse. But all the underdeveloped countries find themselves exploited, robbed and oppressed by imperialism.

History knows many different forms of slavery, and financial slavery is the modern form of slavery. It is not as obvious as chattel slavery, but it is slavery nonetheless, whereby entire nations are subjugated and plundered. In 1999 alone, $128 million was transferred from the poorest countries to the richest for debt repayments – every day. Of this, $53 million was from East Asia and the Pacific, $38 million from South Asia and $23 million from Africa. The lives of billions of people are crushed by this collective debt slavery. The Bible informs us that the ancient Canaanites used to sacrifice children to Moloch. But, as a result of debt slavery, seven million children are sacrificed on the altar of capital, which makes old Moloch pale into insignificance.

If debt had been cancelled in 1997 for twenty of the poorest countries, the money released for basic health care could have saved the lives of about twenty-one million children by the year 2000, the equivalent of 19,000 children a day. According to the campaign Jubilee 2000, fifty-two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia with a total of 1 billion people are sinking under a debt burden of $371 billion. This is less than the total net worth of the world’s twenty-one richest individuals. In this way, imperialism still sucks the blood of billions of poor people in the former colonial world.

From very early in its history Mexico learned what it was like to live next door to a large and hungry imperialist predator. One recalls the celebrated words of Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States.” Although Mexico has been formally independent for almost two centuries, the fictitious nature of this independence has been glaringly revealed in recent decades with the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with its Big Brother across the Rio Grande. This has had a devastating effect on Mexican industry and agriculture, while the opening of US-owned factories in the Maquiladoras in the border areas provides a huge pool of cheap labour for the Yankee bosses.

Originally based in the border cities of Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Mexicali y Nogales, these assembly plants working for the US market have now spread throughout the whole territory of Mexico. Here we see exactly how modern imperialism works. Why go to all the trouble and expense of direct military-bureaucratic rule, when one can dominate a country very effectively by economic means, leaving the disagreeable business of repression to a ‘friendly’ (that is, subordinate) government?

This neo-colonialist mode of exploitation is no less predatory than the overt plunder of the colonies realised in the past on the basis of direct military rule. In general, the same old colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean are being sucked dry by the same old bloodsuckers. The only difference is that this robbery is carried on quite legally through the mechanism of world trade by which the advanced capitalist countries of Europe exercise a joint domination of the ex-colonies, and are thereby spared the cost of direct rule, while continuing to extract huge surplus profits by exchanging more labour for less.

Imperialism and war

The division of the world into rival imperialist powers of which Lenin speaks was already completed by the end of the nineteenth century. After that, the question arose of the re-division of the world, a question that could only be settled by one means: war.

Over the last one hundred years there have been two world wars, the second of which caused the deaths of fifty-five million people and nearly ended in the extinction of human civilisation. This provides the most graphic proof that the capitalist system has ceased to play a progressive role and has become a monstrous obstacle to human progress. The tremendous development of the productive forces enters into conflict with two fundamental barriers: private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. This is the root cause of wars in the present historical period.

The periodic outbreak of wars, which is usually portrayed as an outbreak of inexplicable collective madness, is in reality an expression of the tensions that arise in class society, which can reach a critical point when the contradictions can only be solved by violent means. Long before Lenin, Clausewitz explained that war is the continuation of politics by other means.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels showed that capitalism, which first arises in the form of the nation state, inevitably creates a world market. The crushing domination of the world market is, in fact, the most decisive feature of the epoch in which we live. No country, no matter how big and powerful, can escape from the pull of the world market. The total failure of socialism in one country in Russia and China is sufficient proof of this assertion. So is the fact that both the major wars of the twentieth century were fought out on a world scale and were wars for world domination.

Capitalism and the nation state, from being a source of enormous progress, became a colossal fetter and impediment to the harmonious development of production. This contradiction reflected itself in the world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and the crisis of the inter-war period. In the First World War the British imperialists were fighting a ‘defensive war’ – that is to say, a war to defend their privileged position as the foremost imperialist robber in the world, holding countless millions of Indians and Africans in colonial slavery. The same cynical calculations may be discerned in the case of every one of the belligerent nations, from the biggest to the smallest.

The development of world trade in the period that followed the Second World War allowed the capitalist system to overcome this contradiction, though only partially and for a temporary period. A major role in the economic upswing was the development of world trade and the intensification of the international division of labour. This culminated in what was called globalisation. Ex-Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm believed that globalisation would put an end to national conflict. The revisionist Karl Kautsky said exactly the same thing a hundred years ago.

The First World War showed the hollowness of that theory. And the state of our world today shows the stupidity of Hobsbawm’s neo-revisionism. Far from eliminating national contradictions, they have been enormously exacerbated. Despite all the talk about free trade and liberalisation, there is a fierce struggle for markets between all the main capitalist nations.

There is a clear tendency for the world to break up into trading blocks, dominated respectively by the USA, Germany and Japan. Each one jealously tries to protect its own markets and spheres of influence, while demanding more access to those of its rivals. Tensions between the USA and China in the Pacific are growing sharper all the time. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, thousands of people continue to be slaughtered in wars every day. Five million at least have perished in the Congo alone. How much more profound was Lenin, whose classic book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism is as fresh and relevant now as the day it was written.

The European Union was created in an attempt to overcome this limitation. The separate national markets of Britain, France, Germany, and the others, were far too small for the giant monopolies. The big monopolies looked forward to an unrestricted regional market of hundreds of millions, and beyond that to the world market. On the basis of the economic upswing, the European capitalists were largely successful in establishing this glorified customs union, where the abolition of tariffs between the countries of the Common Market and a common tariff with the rest of the world served to develop and stimulate world trade. But now all these advances are turning into their opposite.

The formation of regional trading blocs and bilateral trade agreements, far from examples of free trade, are a potential threat to globalisation. Far from being a step in the direction of free trade, the EU is a regional trading block directed, on the one hand, against the USA and Japan, on the other hand it is an alliance of imperialist powers dedicated to the collective exploitation of the Third World.

The European Union has always been a union in the interests of the bankers and capitalists. Marxists are internationalists. We are in favour of a unified Europe, but it cannot be achieved on the basis of capitalism. Have we overcome the national division in Europe? No. The Euro has made things worse, as the people of Greece know only too well. The idea of a common currency would obviously be a sound one if there was a socialist Europe. Under socialism there would be a common plan of production, but this would be on the basis of a democratic voluntary union, on the basis of equality, not a union that is dominated by bankers and one country, Germany.

Why has there not been another world war in the recent period?

Today, the contradictions of capitalism have re-emerged in an explosive manner on a world scale. A long period of capitalist expansion – which bears some striking similarities to the period that preceded the First World War – came to a dramatic end in 2008. We are now in the throes of the most serious economic crisis in the entire 200-year history of capitalism.

Contrary to the theories of the bourgeois economists, globalisation did not abolish the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. It only reproduced them on a far vaster scale than ever before: globalisation now manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. The root cause of the crisis is the revolt of the productive forces against the two fundamental obstacles that are preventing human progress: private ownership of the means of production and the nation state.

The tensions that now exist between the United States, Japan and Europe in another period would have already led to war. But with the existence of nuclear weapons, and also the horrific array of other barbarous means of destruction – chemical and bacteriological arms – all-out war between the major powers would signify mutual annihilation, or at least a price so terrible as to make war an unattractive proposition, except to ignorant and unbalanced generals.

There are important differences between the position today and that which existed in Lenin’s time. On two occasions the imperialists tried to solve their contradictions by war: in 1914 and 1939. Why can this not happen again? The contradictions between the imperialists are now so sharp that in the past they would already have led to war. The question that must be asked is: why is the world not at war once more? The answer is in the changed balance of forces on a world scale.

The fact of the matter is that the old pygmy states of Europe long ago ceased to play any independent role in the world. That is why the European bourgeoisie were forced to form the European Union, in an effort to compete with the USA, Russia and now also China on a world scale. But a war between Europe and any of the above-mentioned states is entirely ruled out. Apart from anything else, Europe lacks an army, navy and air force. Such armies that exist are kept jealously under the control of the different ruling classes, who, behind the façade of European ‘unity’, are fighting like cats in a sack to defend their ‘national interests’.

Under present-day conditions, not war between the European states, but class war in every country of Europe is the prospect that now opens up. The introduction of the Euro has sharpened the national contradictions. In the past, when the countries of southern Europe had financial problems, they could devalue their currency. Today, they don’t have this option. Instead, they are compelled to resort to an ‘internal devaluation’, which means an attack on living standards. This is not only happening in Greece, but across Europe and throughout the world.

The drive of German imperialism to establish itself as the dominant power in Europe was the principal cause of the First World War. Today, Germany does not need to resort to such methods because it has conquered what it wants by economic means. There would be no point in Germany invading Belgium or seizing Alsace-Lorraine, for the simple reason that Germany already controls the whole of Europe through her economic might. All the important decisions are taken by the German government and the Bundesbank, without a single shot having been fired. Maybe France can start a war of national independence from Germany? It is sufficient to pose the question to see immediately its absurdity.

The bourgeoisie at this moment is attacking all the gains that the working class has made in the last fifty years. They want to push us back to the Stone Age. Look at what is happening around the world, from Europe to Brazil and from Africa to Thailand – instability everywhere. Therefore, it is not a crisis in Europe but a crisis of capitalism worldwide. Not world war, but an unprecedented upsurge in the class war is the perspective for the period into which we have entered.

From a military point of view, no country can stand against the colossal military might of the USA. But that power also has limits. There are glaring contradictions between the USA, China and Japan in the Pacific. In the past, that would have led to war. But China is no longer a weak, backward, semi-colonial nation that could easily be invaded and reduced to colonial servitude. It is a growing economic and military power, which is flexing its muscles and asserting its interests. There is no question of the USA invading and enslaving China!

Pax Americana?

It is almost twenty-five years since George Bush (Senior), the then-President of the US, made his famous ‘New World Order’ speech. The President of the most powerful state on earth promised a world without wars, without dictatorships and, of course, a world firmly under the control of a single all-powerful world policeman – the US. This was in 1991, at a time when he was preparing the build-up to the first Gulf War.

After the fall of Stalinism, US imperialism really thought that the world would be firmly under their command and that they would be able to dictate the destiny of each and every country. All conflicts in the world were to be solved through dialogue in a kind of ‘Pax Americana’. Now all these dreams have been reduced to rubble. There is war after war. And in the words of the Roman historian Tacitus: “When they have created a wilderness, they call it peace.”

The historical period in which we live is a peculiar one. Earlier there were always three, four or more imperialist powers, but now there is only one real giant, the United States. The power of imperial Rome was nothing compared to the United States today. Thirty-eight per cent of military spending in the world comes from the US, including the most horrifying weapons of mass destruction. US imperialism is truly the biggest counter-revolutionary power on earth in history.

Together with colossal power, however, comes colossal arrogance. George W. Bush tore up all international rules and diplomacy patiently built up since the seventeenth century. Under the terms of the ‘Bush Doctrine’ the USA claimed for itself the right to intervene everywhere. The wars that afflict the planet are a symptom of a system in decay. In the United States every year more than 750 billion dollars is spent on weapons. With that money alone, it would be possible to build enough hospitals, schools and houses for everybody and to end hunger in the world.

That the United States is very powerful is a fact, but this has its limits too, as was proven in Iraq. The imperialists invaded Iraq in 2003 and proclaimed that the mission had been ‘accomplished’. In reality Iraq is in a shambles and has no functioning national army. 150,000 American soldiers were not able to defeat the Iraqi people, though at least 100,000 Iraqis were killed. The goal was to plunder Iraq, but it achieved nothing but a terrible haemorrhage of blood and gold, which even the richest country in the world could not sustain. In the end, the US forces were forced to withdraw, leaving an Iraq that has been reduced to a barbarous state of misery, division and despair.

The USA has already burned its fingers badly in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was unable to intervene in Syria and now it finds itself impotent to fight with Russia over Ukraine. How could it even consider war with a country like China when it cannot even respond to the continuous provocations from North Korea? The question is a very concrete one.

For all these reasons, a world war, on the lines of 1914-18 or 1939-45, is ruled out for the foreseeable future. However, that does not mean that the world will be a more peaceful and harmonious place. On the contrary, there will be one war after another, but they will be ‘small’ wars, like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a sufficiently terrible prospect for the human race.

Answering a pacifist who said that war is terrible, Lenin said: “Yes, terribly profitable”. Big multinational companies like Halliburton received billions of dollars from the American tax payer for so-called ‘reconstruction’ operations in Iraq. It is also no coincidence that this company gives big donations to the Republican Party and that Vice President Dick Cheney was for a long time an executive. This is a very clear example of the organic link between the big monopolies and the state of which Lenin wrote in Imperialism.

War and revolution

Two world wars were sufficient proof that the capitalist system had completely exhausted its potential for progress. But Lenin pointed out that, unless it is overthrown by the working class, capitalism can always find a way out of even the deepest economic crisis. What Lenin saw as a theoretical possibility in 1920 actually occurred after 1945. As the result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances, the capitalist system entered into a new period of upswing. The prospect of socialist revolution, at least in the developed capitalist countries, was postponed.

Just as in the two decades before 1914, the bourgeoisie and its apologists were drunk with illusions. And just as then, the leaders of the labour movement echoed these illusions. Even more than then, they have abandoned any pretence of standing for socialism and have wholeheartedly embraced ‘the market’. But now the wheel has turned full circle. In 2008, the fruit of success turned to ashes in their mouths. As in 1914, history has given them a rude awakening.

Before 1914, the Social Democratic leaders still paid lip service to the ideas of socialism and the class struggle. On the first of May they made radical sounding and even revolutionary speeches. But in practice they had abandoned the perspective of socialist revolution in favour of reformism: the notion that peacefully, gradually, painlessly, they could transform capitalism into socialism at some distant time in the future.

In one international congress after another the Social Democrats – who included at that time Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – voted for resolutions pledging the International to oppose any attempt of the imperialists to launch a war, and even to take advantage of the situation to organise a revolutionary struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

To their eternal shame, all the leaders of the Second International (with the exception of the Russians and Serbs) betrayed the working class by supporting ‘their’ ruling class on ‘patriotic’ grounds. As a result, millions of workers in uniform were condemned to death in the mud, blood and poisoned gas of Flanders.

Lenin was so shocked when he heard that the German Social Democrats had voted for the war credits in the Reichstag that, at first, he refused to believe it. But once it was confirmed, he did not hesitate to break with the Second International and raise the banner of the Third (Communist) International. Throughout the war Lenin was virtually isolated in Switzerland. The situation seemed utterly hopeless. The rallying call of ‘workers of the world unite’ appeared to be a grim irony as German, French, Russian and British workers shot and bayoneted each other to death in the interests of their masters. At the first conference of anti-war socialists held in the small Swiss village of Zimmerwald in 1915, Lenin joked that you could put all the internationalists in the world into two stagecoaches.

Yet the imperialist war ended in revolution. The Russian Revolution offered humanity a way out of the nightmare of wars, poverty and suffering. But the absence of a revolutionary leadership on an international scale meant that this possibility was aborted in one country after another. The result was a new crisis and a new and even more terrible imperialist war.

Immense possibilities

Lenin said: “capitalism is horror without end.” The bloody convulsions that are spreading throughout the world show that he was right. Middle-class moralists weep and wail about these horrors, but they have no idea what the causes are, still less the solution. Pacifists, ‘Greens’, feminists and others point to the symptoms but not the underlying cause, which lies in a diseased social system that has outlived its historical role.

The horrors we see before us are only the outward symptoms of the death agony of capitalism. But they are also the birth pangs of a new society that is fighting to be born. It is our task to cut short these birth pangs and hasten the birth of a new and genuinely human society.

Thanks to the developments in technology and science, humanity has the possibility of eliminating all the old evils of hunger, war and illiteracy. But what is the reality? Still, 1.2 billion people are living under the poverty line, and every year 8 million men, women and children die as a result of this. This is nothing less than a silent holocaust on a world-scale that nobody talks about. This is what capitalism has to offer today.

Today, the struggle against imperialism is unthinkable without the struggle against capitalism. Is there any power in the world that could overcome the power of US imperialism? Yes, such a power exists. It is called the working class! Not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns and not a telephone rings without their consent! The problem is that they have this power but they do not know it.

During the dark days of the First World War, Lenin once more found himself isolated and in contact with only a very small group. But he was not afraid to fight against the stream. He dedicated all his strength to educate and train the cadres on the basis of the genuine ideas of Marxism. His masterpiece Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism is an immortal monument to his work in the vital field of theory.  

Lenin showed no sign of pessimism when the situation could have seemed hopeless. And there is no room for pessimism now. In the convulsive period that lies ahead, the working class will have many opportunities to transform society. The power of the working class has never been greater than now. But this power must be organised, mobilised and provided with adequate leadership. This is the main task on the order of the day. We stand firmly on the basis of Lenin’s ideas, which have withstood the test of time. Together with the ideas of Marx, Engels and Trotsky, they alone provide the guarantee of future victory.


[1] Henceforth referred to as LCW.

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