[Classics] Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

5. Division of the World Among Capitalist Associations

Monopolist capitalist associations, cartels, syndicates and trusts first divided the home market among themselves and obtained more or less complete possession of the industry of their own country. But under capitalism the home market is inevitably bound up with the foreign market. Capitalism long ago created a world market. As the export of capital increased, and as the foreign and colonial connections and ‘spheres of influence’ of the big monopolist associations expanded in all ways, things ‘naturally’ gravitated towards an international agreement among these associations, and towards the formation of international cartels.

This is a new stage of world concentration of capital and production, incomparably higher than the preceding stages. Let us see how this super-monopoly develops.

The electrical industry is highly typical of the latest technical achievements and is most typical of capitalism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. This industry has developed most in the two leaders of the new capitalist countries, the United States and Germany. In Germany, the crisis of 1900 gave a particularly strong impetus to its concentration. During the crisis, the banks, which by that time had become fairly well merged with industry, enormously accelerated and intensified the ruin of relatively small firms and their absorption by the large ones. Jeidels writes:

The banks refused a helping hand to the very firms in greatest need of capital, and brought on first a frenzied boom and then the hopeless failure of the companies which had not been connected with them closely enough. (Jeidels, op. cit., p. 232.)

As a result, after 1900, concentration in Germany progressed with giant strides. Up to 1900 there had been seven or eight ‘groups’ in the electrical industry. Each consisted of several companies (altogether there were 28) and each was backed by from 2 to 11 banks. Between 1908 and 1912 all these groups were merged into two, or one. The following diagram (table 5.1) shows the process.

(5.1) Groups in the Electrical Industry

Prior to 1900

Felten & Guillaume


Union AEG

Siemens & Halske

Schuckert & Co.




Felten & Lahmeyer


Siemens & Halske-Schuckert


Failed in 1900


By 1912

AEG (GEC) Siemens & Halske-Schuckert


(In close ‘co-operation’ since 1908)


The famous AEG (General Electric Company), which grew up in this way, controls 175 to 200 companies (through the ‘holding’ system), and a total capital of approximately 1,500 million marks. Of direct agencies abroad alone, it has thirty-four, of which twelve are joint-stock companies, in more than ten countries. As early as 1904, the amount of capital invested abroad by the German electrical industry was estimated at 233 million marks. Of this sum, 62 million were invested in Russia. Needless to say, the AEG is a huge ‘combine’ – its manufacturing companies alone number no less than sixteen – producing the most diverse articles, from cables and insulators to motorcars and flying machines.

But concentration in Europe was also a component part of the process of concentration in America, which developed in the following way. (See table 5.2.)


General Electric Company

United States

Thomson-Houston Co. establishes a firm in Europe.

Edison Co. establishes in Europe the French Edison Co., which transfers its patents to the German firm


Union Electric Co.

General Electric Co. (AEG)


Thus, two electrical ‘great powers’ were formed: “there are no other electrical companies in the world completely independent of them,” wrote Heinig in his article ‘The Path of the Electric Trust’. An idea, although far from complete, of the turnover and the size of the enterprises of the two ‘trusts’ can be obtained from the following figures. (See table 5.3.)



Turnover (000,000 marks)

No. of employees

Net profits (000,000 marks)

America: GEC









Germany: AEG









And then, in 1907, the German and American trusts concluded an agreement by which they divided the world between them. Competition between them ceased. The American General Electric Company (G.E.C.) ‘got’ the United States and Canada. The German General Electric Company (A.E.G.) ‘got’ Germany, Austria, Russia, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Turkey and the Balkans. Special agreements, naturally secret, were concluded regarding the penetration of ‘daughter companies’ into new branches of industry, into ‘new’ countries formally not yet allotted. The two trusts were to exchange inventions and experiments. (Riesser, op. cit.; Diouritch, op. cit., p. 239; Kurt Heinig, op. cit.)

The difficulty of competing against this trust, actually a single world-wide trust controlling a capital of several thousand million, with ‘branches’, agencies, representatives, connections, etc., in every corner of the world, is self-evident. But the division of the world between two powerful trusts does not preclude redivision if the relation of forces changes as a result of uneven development, war, bankruptcy, etc.

An instructive example of an attempt at such a re-division, of the struggle for re-division, is provided by the oil industry.

“The world oil market,” wrote Jeidels in 1905, “is even today still divided between two great financial groups – Rockefeller’s American Standard Oil Co., and Rothschild and Nobel, the controlling interests of the Russian oilfields in Baku. The two groups are closely connected. But for several years five enemies have been threatening their monopoly” (Jeidels, op. cit., pp. 192-93.) : (1) the exhaustion of the American oilfields; (2) the competition of the firm of Mantashev of Baku; (3) the Austrian oilfields; (4) the Romanian oilfields; (5) the overseas oilfields, particularly in the Dutch colonies (the extremely rich firms, Samuel, and Shell, also connected with British capital). The three last groups are connected with the big German banks, headed by the huge Deutsche Bank. These banks independently and systematically developed the oil industry in Romania, for example, in order to have a foothold of their ‘own’. In 1907, the foreign capital invested in the Romanian oil industry was estimated at 185 million francs, of which 74 million was German capital. (Diouritch, op. cit., pp. 245-46.)

A struggle began for the ‘division of the world’, as, in fact, it is called in economic literature. On the one hand, the Rockefeller ‘oil trust’ wanted to lay its hands on everything; it formed a ‘daughter company’ right in Holland, and bought up oilfields in the Dutch Indies, in order to strike at its principal enemy, the Anglo-Dutch Shell trust. On the other hand, the Deutsche Bank and the other German banks aimed at ‘retaining’ Romania ‘for themselves’ and at uniting her with Russia against Rockefeller. The latter possessed far more capital and an excellent system of oil transportation and distribution. The struggle had to end, and did end in 1907, with the utter defeat of the Deutsche Bank, which was confronted with the alternative: either to liquidate its ‘oil interests’ and lose millions, or submit. It chose to submit, and concluded a very disadvantageous agreement with the ‘oil trust’. The Deutsche Bank agreed “not to attempt anything which might injure American interests”. Provision was made, however, for the annulment of the agreement in the event of Germany establishing a state oil monopoly.

Then the ‘comedy of oil’ began. One of the German finance kings, von Gwinner, a director of the Deutsche Bank, through his private secretary, Stauss, launched a campaign for a state oil monopoly. The gigantic machine of the huge German bank and all its wide ‘connections’ were set in motion. The press bubbled over with ‘patriotic’ indignation against the ‘yoke’ of the American trust, and, on 15 March, 1911, the Reichstag, by an almost unanimous vote, adopted a motion asking the government to introduce a bill for the establishment of an oil monopoly. The government seized upon this ‘popular’ idea, and the game of the Deutsche Bank, which hoped to cheat its American counterpart and improve its business by a state monopoly, appeared to have been won. The German oil magnates already saw visions of enormous profits, which would not be less than those of the Russian sugar refiners… But, firstly, the big German banks quarrelled among themselves over the division of the spoils. The Disconto-Gesellschaft exposed the covetous aims of the Deutsche Bank; secondly, the government took fright at the prospect of a struggle with Rockefeller, for it was very doubtful whether Germany could be sure of obtaining oil from other sources (the Romanian output was small); thirdly, just at that time the 1913 credits of a thousand million marks were voted for Germany’s war preparations. The oil monopoly project was postponed. The Rockefeller ‘oil trust’ came out of the struggle, for the time being, victorious.

The Berlin review, Die Bank, wrote in this connection that Germany could fight the oil trust only by establishing an electricity monopoly and by converting water power into cheap electricity.

But the electricity monopoly will come when the producers need it, that is to say, when the next great crash in the electrical industry is imminent, and when the gigantic, expensive power stations now being put up at great cost everywhere by private electrical concerns, which are already obtaining certain franchises from towns, from states, etc., can no longer work at a profit. Water power will then have to be used. But it will be impossible to convert it into cheap electricity at state expense; it will also have to be handed over to a ‘private monopoly controlled by the state’, because private industry has already concluded a number of contracts and has stipulated for heavy compensation… So it was with the nitrate monopoly, so it is with the oil monopoly, so it will be with the electric power monopoly. It is time our state socialists, who allow themselves to be blinded by a beautiful principle, understood, at last, that in Germany the monopolies have never pursued the aim, nor have they had the result, of benefiting the consumer, or even of handing over to the state part of the promoter’s profits; they have served only to facilitate, at the expense of the state, the recovery of private industries which were on the verge of bankruptcy. (Die Bank, 1912, 1, p. 1036; 1912, 2, p. 629; 1913, 1, p. 388.)

Such are the valuable admissions which the German bourgeois economists are forced to make. We see plainly here how private and state monopolies are interwoven in the epoch of finance capital; how both are but separate links in the imperialist struggle between the big monopolists for the division of the world.

In merchant shipping, the tremendous development of concentration has ended also in the division of the world. In Germany two powerful companies have come to the fore: the Hamburg-Amerika and the Norddeutscher Lloyd, each having a capital of 200 million marks (in stocks and bonds) and possessing shipping tonnage to the value of 185 to 189 million marks. On the other hand, in America, on 1 January, 1903, the International Mercantile Marine Co., known as the Morgan trust, was formed; it united nine American and British steamship companies, and possessed a capital of 120 million dollars (480 million marks). As early as 1903, the German giants and this American-British trust concluded an agreement to divide the world with a consequent division of profits. The German companies undertook not to compete in the Anglo-American traffic. Which ports were to be ‘allotted’ to each was precisely stipulated; a joint committee of control was set up, etc. This agreement was concluded for twenty years, with the prudent provision for its annulment in the event of war. (Riesser, op. cit., p. 125.)

Extremely instructive also is the story of the formation of the International Rail Cartel. The first attempt of the British, Belgian and German rail manufacturers to form such a cartel was made as early as 1884, during a severe industrial depression. The manufacturers agreed not to compete with one another in the home markets of the countries involved, and they divided the foreign markets in the following quotas: Great Britain, 66 per cent; Germany, 27 per cent; Belgium, 7 per cent. India was reserved entirely for Great Britain. Joint war was declared against a British firm which remained outside the cartel, the cost of which was met by a percentage levy on all sales. But in 1886 the cartel collapsed when two British firms retired from it. It is characteristic that agreement could not be achieved during subsequent boom periods.

At the beginning of 1904, the German steel syndicate was formed. In November 1904, the International Rail Cartel was revived, with the following quotas: Britain, 53.5 per cent; Germany, 28.83 per cent; Belgium, 17.67 per cent. France came in later and received 4.8 per cent, 5.8 per cent and 6.4 per cent in the first, second and third year respectively, over and above the 100 per cent limit, i.e., out of a total of 104.8 per cent, etc. In 1905, the United States Steel Corporation entered the cartel; then Austria and Spain. Vogelstein wrote in 1910:

At the present time, the division of the world is complete, and the big consumers, primarily the state railways – since the world has been parcelled out without consideration for their interests – can now dwell like the poet in the heavens of Jupiter. (Vogelstein, Organisationsformen, p. 100.)

Let me also mention the International Zinc Syndicate which was established in 1909 and which precisely apportioned output among five groups of factories: German, Belgian, French, Spanish and British; and also the International Dynamite Trust, which, Liefmann says, is “quite a modern, close alliance of all the German explosives manufacturers who, with the French and American dynamite manufacturers, organised in a similar manner, have divided the whole world among themselves, so to speak”. (Liefmann, Kartelle und Trusts, 2. A., p. 161.)

Liefmann calculated that in 1897 there were altogether about forty international cartels in which Germany had a share, while in 1910 there were about a hundred.

Certain bourgeois writers (now joined by Karl Kautsky, who has completely abandoned the Marxist position he had held, for example, in 1909) have expressed the opinion that international cartels, being one of the most striking expressions of the internationalisation of capital, give the hope of peace among nations under capitalism. Theoretically, this opinion is absolutely absurd, while in practice it is sophistry and a dishonest defence of the worst opportunism. International cartels show to what point capitalist monopolies have developed, and the object of the struggle between the various capitalist associations. This last circumstance is the most important; it alone shows us the historico-economic meaning of what is taking place; for the forms of the struggle may and do constantly change in accordance with varying, relatively specific and temporary causes, but the substance of the struggle, its class content, positively cannot change while classes exist. Naturally, it is in the interests of, for example, the German bourgeoisie, to whose side Kautsky has in effect gone over in his theoretical arguments (I shall deal with this later), to obscure the substance of the present economic struggle (the division of the world) and to emphasise now this and now another form of the struggle. Kautsky makes the same mistake. Of course, we have in mind not only the German bourgeoisie, but the bourgeoisie all over the world. The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits. And they divide it ‘in proportion to capital’, ‘in proportion to strength’, because there cannot be any other method of division under commodity production and capitalism. But strength varies with the degree of economic and political development. In order to understand what is taking place, it is necessary to know what questions are settled by the changes in strength. The question as to whether these changes are ‘purely’ economic or non-economic (e.g., military) is a secondary one, which cannot in the least affect fundamental views on the latest epoch of capitalism. To substitute the question of the form of the struggle and agreements (today peaceful, tomorrow warlike, the next day warlike again) for the question of the substance of the struggle and agreements between capitalist associations is to sink to the role of a sophist.

The epoch of the latest stage of capitalism shows us that certain relations between capitalist associations grow up, based on the economic division of the world; while parallel to and in connection with it, certain relations grow up between political alliances, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the ‘struggle for spheres of influence’.

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