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Understanding imperialism in the 21st century: The problematic legacy of Lenin

John Willoughby

Platypus Review 148 | July/August 2022

KARL KAUTSKY WAS RIGHT. The general term “imperialism” describes a set of policies and practices which facilitate the domination of one political entity over another. The more specific term “capitalist imperialism” does not denote a stage of capitalism, but rather policies designed by more powerful political entities to facilitate the expansion of capital over societies which resist the creation of capitalist social relations themselves or the domination of non-national capital over its economic life. Thus, a Marxist explanation of specific capitalist imperial actions or the more general tendency of capitalist nation-states to develop imperial foreign policies must focus on the connection between expansive accumulation and the consolidation of a politics of imperial domination.[1]

This conclusion does not mean that Kautsky made correct political judgments about how to confront German participation in World War I. Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, he temporized and waffled. His opposition to the war was muted and ineffective, as he attempted to have his cake and eat it — to remain a loyal member of the increasingly imperialist SPD and oppose the German war effort. However, this failure of political will does not mean his understanding of imperialism was also flawed. After all, Rosa Luxemburg also thought imperialism and militarism constituted a set of policies necessary to facilitate capitalist expansion and territorial domination. She did not identify imperialism with a particular stage of capitalism.

This conclusion also does not mean that Lenin’s theory of imperialism made no significant contributions to our understanding of imperialism today. Indeed, I would agree with Callinicos that — despite his unsuccessful attempts to synthesize the theoretical frameworks of Hilferding, who from a German perspective emphasized the creation of national capitalist blocs under the control of finance capital, and Hobson, who from an English perspective focused on the linkages among economic inequality, insufficient aggregate demand and capital export — Lenin’s stress on the destabilizing effects of uneven development and his understanding of the potentially disruptive impact of anti-colonial liberation movements remain fundamental to our understanding of contemporary imperialism.[2] In addition, Lenin’s insistent claim that imperialist rivalry and war was a fundamental characteristic of the early-20th century capitalist disorder certainly is more prescient than Kautsky’s argument that a unified form of ultra-imperialism could emerge from the ashes of World War I.

Still, Lenin’s identification of imperialism with a stage of capitalism is a rhetorical device that has created considerable theoretical confusion.[3] This formulation has led legions of Marxist analysts to attempt to identify a particular economic law or tendency with a particular set of political practices without considering all the mediating factors which can generate different policy interventions.

That capitalism is an expansive, dynamic economic system is a finding that nearly all students of contemporary life would agree. Capitalist firms search for cheaper sources of productive labor power, cheaper raw materials, new markets, new locations for production, and new technological interventions in production and distribution. Finance capital follows to provide the necessary credit to facilitate the growth and reorganization of enterprises — the concentration and centralization of capital. These processes have an inherent spatial dimension. As Trotsky pointed out in a just-republished Foreign Affairs article written in the 1930s, capitalism is always trying to escape from the bonds of nationality and the nation-state.[4] These tendencies do not rest on a particular stage of capitalism. Nor is expansion created by a particular economic crisis or contradiction. Capitalism would grow into new territories even if there were no tendency for the rate of profit to fall, disproportionality disruptions, nor insufficient aggregate demand. What drives this expansion is the constant search for economic rents or above-average profits — the restless search for ever-more surplus value. I have never been convinced, as an economist, that different stages of capitalism (competitive, monopoly, financialized) have significantly moderated this tendency.

This does not mean, however, that capital expansion is always the same. Here, Lenin’s insight that there was something different about global capitalist conflict in the early 20th century than during the 19th century is important. A new type of imperialism had emerged when Lenin wrote Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), but not for the reasons which he articulated. This argument can be made more clearly if we first consider more generally the opportunities and barriers which confront the capital expansion project. The problem facing capitalist firms is that such expansion seldom takes place without social resistance. The use of extra-economic coercive force — either implicit or explicit — is central to the accumulation project. Capital expansion never takes place in a pure economic sphere.

To understand the different forms capitalist imperialism takes, it is useful to consider six factors that focus on different ways to analyze the spatial / political implications of changes in the forces of production and evolving social relations. Where possible, I will indicate how these factors affect the practices of capitalist imperialism today.

First, the way in which capital expansion takes place is conditioned by changes in the technological capabilities of firms and their state supporters. Contemporary economic globalization (the intensified movement across national borders of commodities, capital, and labor power) is driven by enormous advances in the technologies of transportation, communication, and monitoring. A further factor which is less often stressed is that this process has led to the unprecedented spread of technological knowledge, which makes it possible for integrated global systems of capitalist production and distribution to emerge and strengthen. When Lenin was writing, the ability of the export of capital to organize the extraction of raw materials and open up new markets was just beginning to intensify, and this process often had clear national dimensions, i.e., one could identify particular loans or specific investment projects with German, French, or British capital.

Second, the nature of the state and related class relations of societies confronting the import of capital have a profound effect on how imperial domination does or does not take place. The people within so-called peripheral social formations have agency. Marx once argued that British colonial rule would create a form of Indian capitalism which would eventually confront and overthrow British imperialism. His specific focus on the spread of technological capabilities through the railroad industry was not correct.[5] In fact, India did not experience significant capitalist development during the Raj. On the other hand, British rule did create a small class of Western-educated professionals who had an outsized impact in mobilizing populations against British colonialism. This process was repeated globally in different ways throughout the world. Lenin himself came from this new class stratum. The rise of anti-colonial nationalism has meant that the direct rule over “peripheral” territories is not available for any rational form of imperial control today.[6] When Lenin was writing, colonial control was still a powerful option for imperial countries. Nevertheless, he stressed that the struggle for national liberation and anti-capitalist resistance could be linked.

Third, changes in the relations of rival capitalist blocs can reorganize imperialist politics. Note that alliances among capitalist enterprises need not be defined nationally, although Lenin stressed the issue of uneven development of national capitalist blocs in his analysis of the fundamental causes of World War I. His focus on the rise of German finance capital hemmed in by other more stagnant imperial / colonial powers has laid the basis for many premature mainstream and Marxist arguments that the era of American hegemony will soon end. In the 70s, it was the rise of Europe and Japan which would destabilize American power. Now, the focus is on the rise of China in particular and East Asia in general. I will return to this issue shortly, but I would note here that many analyses of contemporary imperialism fail to acknowledge the extraordinary technological dynamism of global capitalism. It is as if the relatively slower growth of European and American capitalism defines the nature of global capitalism, when in fact there have been enormous surges in global production. This leads many to assert incorrectly that the relative decline of the U.S. economy is synonymous with the relative decline of U.S. capitalism.

Fourth, the nature of institutions governing inter-state relations have an important effect on forms of imperialism. Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank matter. In the postwar years, U.S. foreign-policy elites have fitfully attempted to create global institutions, which can use their authority (derived from the most powerful national governments) to regulate trade disputes and keep barriers to commodity trade and capital movements low, intensify the integration of countries facing debt crises into the networks of global capitalist control, and present capitalist development as the only path available for the improvement of living standards of the world’s peoples. As we noted earlier, Lenin did not anticipate this possibility, and given his political agenda, that is understandable. Still, this gap does not require us to ignore the rise of multilateral institutions in the contemporary era.

Fifth, changes in the power and distribution of the means of military coercion have an important effect on facilitating or limiting imperial conflict. Breakthroughs in command and control technology within the most advanced military organizations have, in one way, made it easier for imperial planners to contemplate military interventions to discipline outlier or renegade states. On the other hand, one noteworthy development in the last several decades is the migration of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to quite poor states such as North Korea or Pakistan. This suggests that the exercise of military power by advanced capitalist states has its limits. Moreover, because of the inability to establish stable colonial rule that I referred to earlier in this essay, the American debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that the possession of overwhelming military force cannot ensure the ability of an imperial power to establish effective political control over a rebellious territory. Lenin had surprisingly little to say about how changes in military technology might affect shifts in imperial policies.

Sixth, the nature of the relation of the metropolitan working and professional-managerial classes to the imperialist projects of “their” nation-states are crucial for the understanding of the sustainability of imperialist politics. This last factor addresses the problematic creation of a hegemonic imperial culture. In recent years, we have witnessed a peculiar phenomenon in the politics of the United States and Western Europe — the rejection by the Right of the neoliberal order of multilateral capitalist expansion and the rhetorical promotion of a xenophobic, national capitalist society as an alternative. In the United States, Donald Trump’s eagerness to withdraw from NATO, disrupt U.S.–EU relations, and perhaps dismantle some foreign military bases reflects a popular rejection by many within the United States of the usefulness of the post-World War II imperial institutions. Before his disastrous foray into Ukraine, Vladmir Putin recognized the shakiness of popular support for these neoliberal political alliances and formed, at very little cost, important linkages with the new Right-wing parties of Europe. Lenin’s focus in his writings was on how the working class in advanced capitalist territories became attached to or seduced by imperial exploitation. He identified an aristocracy of labor which shared in the imperial loot. While many have not found this argument convincing, Lenin’s consideration of the problem of working-class attachment to the colonial policies of the day is important and should remain an important issue for any student of imperialism today.

These six points help us identify the contradictions which face any imperial or would-be imperial power. Because of their complexity, there is always a high degree of uncertainty about the global environment in which governing elites and capitalists operate, and this uncertainty often leads to catastrophic mistakes which undermine particular imperialist policies. Although Lenin thought of World War I as an inevitable outcome of imperial rivalry, for example, most historians view it as arising from a series of devastating miscalculations. Similarly, it is hard to argue that Bush’s decision to create a neo-colonial outpost in Iraq was anything but a hubristic, neocon fever-dream, even if it was motivated by a desire to seize control of Iraqi oil fields. The Iraq War temporarily eroded American power abroad and shook the hegemonic support of imperial policies within the United States. I would argue that while the exercise of imperial coercion in contemporary capitalism is inevitable, few specific policies spring unproblematically from the logic of accumulation.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates some of these findings. He underestimated the cost of the Russian invasion by failing to recognize that it would be extremely difficult to establish semi-colonial control over a territory which was attempting to integrate itself economically, militarily, and culturally with Western Europe (with the support of EU and U.S. elites). It is likely that, while the Ukrainian people will suffer and Russian regional imperial ambitions will weaken, the U.S. alliance system will strengthen. It is as if Putin handed the Biden Administration a geo-strategic gift. For the anti-imperialist Left in the United States, the dilemma is clear: while the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be resisted, we should also oppose the expansion of NATO and the further intensification of U.S. militarism.

Some recent commentaries have focused on four important issues raised by the Leninist analysis of imperialism. Phil Gasper’s analysis stresses the importance of focusing on Lenin and Bukharin’s emphasis on uneven development and imperialist rivalry.[7] Certainly, there is a fierce competitive struggle among capitalist enterprises, and nation-states often act to defend the interests of “their” capitalists. The rapid rise of one set of national enterprises, however, need not automatically signal a decline in the power of a nation-state whose economy is growing less rapidly. Within the advanced capitalist world, growth has taken place in an institutional framework that depends on the exercise of U.S power. It is not likely that the leaders of capitalist Japan, South Korea, or Germany have any reason to challenge these hegemonic structures and practices. Indeed, during the Trump era, the political leaders of these countries pleaded with the U.S. government to remain their imperial sponsor.

On the other hand, rivalry between a stagnating United States and a rising China or recalcitrant Russia could destabilize the world order, even though Chinese and Russian capital accumulation depends on operating with the structures of U.S.-sponsored globalization. As I noted previously, any prognosis about imperial rivalry must confront the fact that we do not know what the future will bring. Will Xi’s economic policies lead to a weakening in Chinese capital accumulation? Will Biden’s attempts to construct Asian opposition to China and reassert American dominance in the region last beyond his term in office? Will the U.S. and China (with the support of business interests on both sides of the divide) attempt to revitalize the interpenetration of U.S. and Chinese capital? Simply asserting the predominance of imperialist rivalry does not allow us to answer these specific questions.

The discussion of Johnny Mercer, Chernoh Bah, and Sunit Singh raises a different issue:  the status of the traditional Leninist promotion of colonial, national-liberation movements.[8] In their different ways, these commentators argue that the celebration of the creation of anti-colonial capitalist states in the “periphery” deemphasizes the importance of class struggle within these social formations and downplay the ways in which the integration of relatively new capitalist social formations into a global capitalist system forms alliances of different national ruling classes. If Lenin were alive today, he would probably agree with these perceptive commentaries even though the traditional Stalinist interpretation of Imperialism often stresses that anti-imperialist or anti-colonial struggles are more salient than anti-capitalist struggles. Lenin’s own political practice suggests that he always strived to link such nationalist movements to the working-class struggle for socialism.

Finally, there is Bill Martin’s recognition that Donald Trump’s intervention into imperial politics often represented a break with the postwar imperial consensus.[9] This, to me, suggests that the cultural hegemony of U.S. imperialist politics rests on shakier grounds than normal. Trump is evoking a type of imperialism that rests solely on American military power rather than on the creation of multilateral institutions. This vision is not unique to Trump, and indeed, it was an important part of Right-wing Republican politics in the immediate postwar era. We should be under no illusions that Trump’s intervention is progressive. At the same time, my guess is that if Trump had withdrawn from NATO, scuppered the WTO, and closed down military bases in South Korea or Germany, this would have weakened the ability of the U.S. state to project its coercive power. Unfortunately, no one on the social-democratic Left, including Bernie Sanders, has attempted to articulate an anti-imperialist alternative to the Biden Administration’s attempt to reconstruct the institutional framework of U.S. hegemony.

The struggle for imperial control over resources, markets, and polities has been enormously destructive. Tens of millions have perished in wars, human-manufactured famines, and coercive attempts to crush popular rebellions. Military rivalry and the continued development of ever-more dangerous weapons systems threaten humanity itself. Lenin’s insistence that capitalism and imperialism are ineluctably linked is compelling, but his theory has limited explanatory power and gives us inadequate political guidance. An alternative perspective insists that there are different types of imperialist policies — some more dangerous than others — and it is not useful to limit ourselves to a sectarian insistence that a specific campaign with anti-imperialist implications (such as the banning of nuclear weapons or the arms trade) must always be linked to the struggle for socialism. There are always liberating possibilities between the oppressive imperialist capitalist present and the socialist future. Anti-imperialist socialists should be radical reformists and revolutionaries at the same time.

This final conclusion places itself in opposition to the analysis of Chris Cutrone, whose critique of Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch in the Platypus Review raises a series of issues related to the nature of the capitalist state and the role of reformist politics in the construction of socialism.[10] Cutrone argues that socialist strategy which focuses on reforming the practices of the nation-state represents a form of liberalism and betrays the struggle for socialism. He draws a link between this alleged pallid reformism and Stalin’s claim that socialism can be constructed in one country.

This intervention relates to Lenin’s theory of imperialism because Lenin too thought that the campaign against imperialism is synonymous with revolutionary action to smash the capitalist state. Cutrone draws heavily on Lenin’s State and Revolution to articulate his argument, without noting that this allegedly most libertarian of Lenin’s works simultaneously celebrates the proletariat’s ability to run society without an oppressive state and calls for strict factory discipline and technocratic rule. Cutrone makes the extraordinary claim that it does not matter for the construction of socialism what the working class does as long as the working class is doing it. I suspect that Cutrone’s definition of the working class is flexible enough so that any anti-socialist actions of workers are not considered working-class actions.

Unlike Cutrone, I believe Panitch’s and Miliband’s critique of mainstream social democratic politics is important. They both stress the necessity to link campaigns for changes in socio-economic policies within the state with the construction of a revived working-class culture that centers on socialist political activism outside the state. It is hard to imagine an effective socialist and anti-imperialist politics which does not focus on the institutions and practices of the nation-state. Panitch and his co-author Sam Gindin recognized this when they wrote The Making of Global Capitalism.[11] While it lacks the revolutionary passion of Lenin’s Imperialism, it provides a far better analysis of contemporary imperialism and the role of the U.S. imperialist state than Lenin’s early-20th century writings. This last point is not a criticism of Lenin. After all, he wrote on imperialism more than a century ago. |P

[1] The classic Marxist writings I will be drawing on in this essay include: V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970); Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981); Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973); John A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954); Karl Kautsky,“National State, Imperialist State, and Confederation,” in Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I, eds. Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[2] Alex Callinicos, “Lenin and Imperialism,” in The Palgrave Handbook on Leninist Political Philosophy (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2018), 457–82.

[3] I make this point most forcefully in John Willoughby, “Evaluating the Leninist Theory of Imperialism,” Science and Society 59, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 320–38.

[4] Leon Trotsky, “Nationalism and Economic Life,” Foreign Affairs (April 1934), available online at <>.

[5] Karl Marx, “The Future of British Rule in India,” in Marx & Engels Collected Works, vol. 12: Marx and Engels: 1853–1854 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979), 257.

[6] One important exception to this conclusion is the settler-colonial occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state.

[7] Phil Gasper, “Lenin and Bukharin on Imperialism,” International Socialist Review 100 (Spring 2016), available online at <>.

[8] Chernoh Bah, Bill Martin, Johnny Mercer, Sunit Singh, “Imperialism and the Left,” Platypus Review 129 (September 2020), available online at <>.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Chris Cutrone, “Lenin Today,” Platypus Review 126 (May 2020), available online at <>.

[11] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (London: Verso, 2013).