Lenin's Theory of Imperialism

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Lenin's Theory of Imperialism

Lenin developed his theory of imperialism amid an intensification of European engagement with the periphery. This intensification had begun during the second half of the 19th century. Domestically, capital was concentrating into large monopolistic corporations integrated with and led by a few large financial oligarchies.

Lenin theorized that these two developments were intrinsically linked. The concentration of capital created inequality. Inequality in the core constrained aggregate demand levels. The general population could not absorb the mass of commodities achieved by higher levels of productive capacity. Insufficient demand created continual realization crises. The price of raw materials threatened profits further. The falling rate of profit required economic expansion to open up new regions for investment, sources of raw materials, and new consumer markets.

>From the premise that the capitalist class controls the state politically, Lenin theorized that finance-capital, the dominant form of capital, used the state machinery to colonize the periphery. In the periphery, capitalists would (1) use oppressed peripheral labor to produce primary commodities and raw materials cheaply; (2) create an affluent strata (a peripheral elite) to consume expensive commodities imported from the core; and (3) undermine indigenous industry, making the colonies dependent on core investment.

The overall effect was that the core pumped wealth out of the periphery. The wealth flowing into the domestic economies of the core stifled the fall in the rate of profit. Lenin called this set of circumstances "imperialism."

Several specific consequences followed; two are notable. One, surpluses permitted the development of a "labor aristocracy," a stratum of well-paid workers loyal to the capitalist class. Two, nation-state rivalry in the imperial system intensified nationalist sentiments among the working class and this deflected class struggle. Both of these effects functioned to strengthen the bourgeoisie over against the proletariat.

Although this strategy would work in the short-term, Lenin argued, in the longer term it would undermine first imperialism and then capitalism in the core. Nation-state rivalry would lead to inter-imperial wars. The costs (financial drain) and devastation (destruction of productive capacity) of these wars would weaken core nation-states, not only because the losers would find themselves in an unfavorable position and with a diminished capacity to exploit the periphery, but because nationalist movements in the periphery and anti-colonial wars would undermine the capacity of even victorious core nations to exploit the periphery. Once the core lost control over its colonies the imperium would stagnate domestically. Domestic economic stagnation would raise the level of antagonisms between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat leading to a social revolution in the core.

There are at least two criticisms of the theory. First, the theory neglects the fundamental exploitative capitalist relations between core and periphery that existed for several hundred years before the "imperialist" phase, calling into question the claim that Lenin is describing something truly unique. What Lenin sees as the wave of colonization is actually an intensification in colonialism. It therefore appears, contrary to Lenin, that "imperialism" is a continuation of the same fundamental system of colonial domination not a new phase of capitalist development. Second, while some of what Lenin predicted happened, capitalism was not undermined in the period that most closely approximates the conditions he claimed would cause the core socialist revolution.

Andrew Austin

Any thoughts on the work of Harry Magdoff the locus of which is the distinction between colonialism and imperialism? With Magdoff, I think there is a continuity between the two but they are nevertheless distinct. The problem facing the ex-colonial powers in the aftermath of the first wave of decolonizations immediately after WW deuce was how to maintain economic dominance of the decolonized countries [control of raw materials, cheap labor supply, market for industrial goods] without having to resort to colonialist style occupation and governance all while giving them a semblance of economic and political independence.

Magdoff is highly sympathetic to Lenin's account but warns against turning into a rigid formula that can be applied to all periods and situations. [cf Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present p95ff]. Magdoff argues that Imperialism is the result of the process of capital accumulation.

Magdoff lays down 5 conditions for a satisfactory theory of imperialism: 1) "Restless expansion--the accumulation of capital-- is the driving force and the very essence of capitalism. The desire and need to utilize resources of other nations for this accumulation process are present in all stages of capitalist development...

2) "The origin of capitalism as a world system determined its structure and strongly influenced its entire course of development...

3) "The more powerful capitalist nations grafted their mode of production on the rest of the world...

4)" The world capitalist system... had two historically new features a) the institution of an international division of labor between manufacturing nations and those that provided raw materials and food and b) the creation of a hierarchy in which the overwhelming majority were dependent on a few centers of industry and banking...

5)" the laws and institutions of capitalism constantly reproduce the international division of labor and the hierarchy of economic and financial dependency." Ibid p 98.

In Lenin's theory the central aspect is the export of capital. Yet today, taking into consideration debt repayment, many peripheral countries are net exporters of capital [cf. Michael Hudson Trade, Development and Foreign Debt].

Sam Pawlett

it's been years since I read Magdoff's book so I'd appreciate someone refreshing my memory about the distinction he makes between colonialism and imperialism...

perhaps my short-term memory fails, but didn't Andy A initially ask listers about the difference between colonialism and imperialism?... and the present thread header *Colonialism/Imperialism* stems from my post asking about the utility of the distinction Lenin made between imperialist 'stage' of capitalism and the colonial empires of 16th & 17th centuries or empires of ancient world (difference stemming from different economic bases)...

is colonialism the direct and overall subordination of one country/ peoples to another on the basis of state power being in the hands of dominating power?...

what of neo-colonialism which has often been treated as though it were a matter of imperialism retaining economic control after being forced to cede direct state power...but as Nkrumah noted, neo-colonial methods are 'subtle and varied' and neo-colonialists 'operate not only in the economic field, but also in the political, religious, ideological, and cultural spheres' (_Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism_, p. 239)...

moreover, neo-colonialism emerged in a time when imperialism was confronted by a socialist 'world', national liberation movements, and strong working class & rising democratic movements in industrial capitalist states, circumstances presently in retreat. ..as Yoshie noted, there appears a current willingness on the part of imperialists to establish protectorates...a coincidence?

Michael Hoover

Michael Hoover: it's been years since I read Magdoff's book so I'd appreciate someone refreshing my memory about the distinction he makes between colonialism and imperialism...

Magdoff writes: "In order to clearly underscore the unique features of this stage of capitalist history, as distinguished from earlier phases of colonialism and expansionism, many Marxists follow Lenin's practice (proposed in his seminal world, Imperialism,: The Highest Stage of Capitalism) of restricting the use of the term "imperialism" to describe the period since the end of the nineteenth century. This historical differentiation is especially important because the new phenomena just described were not accidental in the economies of the advanced capitalist countries, and (2) the rise of competing industrial and financial powers who were increasingly challenging Great Britain's hegemony in world affairs--a hegemony that had been a determining aspect of the preceding period."

Magdoff goes on to discuss the details of his argument, which he pretty much shares with Lenin. The movement of this pattern leads to this effect: "Self-contained economic regions dissolved into a world economy--one that was characterized by an international division of labor in which the leading industrial nations made and sold manufactured goods and the rest of the world supplied them with raw materials and food." The question I see here is whether this is the completion of the imperialist phase of capitalist development, given the stagist theory of history advanced by Lenin.

Michael Hoover: perhaps my short-term memory fails, but didn't Andy A initially ask listers about the difference between colonialism and imperialism?...

I wanted to know what definition of imperialism posters were using. I tend not to share the Leninist conception.

Michael Hoover: is colonialism the direct and overall subordination of one country/ peoples to another on the basis of state power being in the hands of dominating power?...

Not necessarily state power. It depends on what you think colonizes, whether it is the state, culture, or capital, or a combination of all three.

Michael Hoover: what of neo-colonalism which has often been treated as though it were a matter of imperialism retaining economic control after being forced to cede direct state power

I think this is a useful term, for example, in the period following World War II, if we use Lenin's definition, since the predicted outcome of the conditions set forth by Lenin appears not to have materialized.

Michael Hoover: moreover, neo-colonialism emerged in a time when imperialism was confronted by a socialist 'world', national liberation movements, and strong working class & rising democratic movements in industrial capitalist states, circumstances presently in retreat.

Yes. In fact, the conditions you describe are what are often defined as the conditions signaling neocolonialism. However, their "retreat" does not reveal the old colonial patterns but something new, something many people are calling the global economy.

Andy Austin

Concerning the word "imperialism," I said what I have to say in that essay I posted. One thing I left out (or said only implicitly) is that most of the academic leftists who, today, focus on the definition given by Lenin in *Imperialism* are damning him with faint praise: they pull out an economistic concept of imperialism in order to show (as this guy Willoughby did) that the concept does not really imply that what goes on outside of Europe -- superexploitation, colonial and semi-colonial oppression, foreign rule, wars, etc. -- is really important for capitalism. Also, to show that earlier colonialism was, itself, not important for capitalism (because it was prior to the "era of imperialism"). This is precisely what Lenin called "imperialist economism," and he fought it tooth and nail because it carried the message that capitalism has no real geopolitical contradictions (wars can be settled amicably; etc.). In other words, you define "imperialism" in such a way as to say, "see, it was just a growing pain of modern capitalism and has been replaced by peaceful globalization." So these arguments are designed to get rid of Lenin's real argument -- I summarized it in the S&S paper --, which was primarily political, not economic, and which predicted that the struggles between capitalist powers for control of colonies, and struggles against core capitalism in the colonies themselves, would play a decisive role in the world socialist revolution.

Michael: "is colonialism the direct and overall subordination of one country/ peoples to another on the basis of state power being in the hands of dominating power?... what of neo-colonialism which has often been treated as though it were a matter of imperialism retaining economic control after being forced to cede direct state power."

My response would be the following. There are and were many forms of colonialism and many forms of necolonialism. You have to understand the *process*. Colonialism sucks value out of places/peoples at a much more profitable level than it can in the metropolis itself (hence Lenin's terms "superexploitation" and "superprofits"). It has this aim always. It accomplishes the aim through political and military control. The "classical colony," with an appointed governor, the imperial flag flying, etc., is one such form. (Examples: British India, present-day Puerto Rico.) But colonial superprofits were also drawn out of China, Thailand, Mexico, and other peripheral countries in which the politico-military control was exerted *indireclty,* with threats backed up by some direct military intervention (gunboat diplomacy, etc. Some of these places were "protectorates," not "colonies." Some had independent but pliable governments. All of it was COLONIALISM. Most mainstream social scientists deny the underlying process -- coloniualism was not fundamentally a profit-making operation, or, wherever it was that, the profits didn't come -- and so they bicker about what was, and what was not, a colony.

Neocolonialism was originally used (as by Nkrumah) to describe former colonies which, though having gained formal ("flag") independence, were still under the economic rule of, and generating the same healthy profits for, the former colonizing poorer and, by extension, the whole of metropolitan capitalism. But quickly it became applied also to places, notably Latin America, where modern imperialism produces a colonial-like situation in countries that have been free since Bolivar. Some Marxists don't like the word "neocolonialism" for two reasons. It seems to downplay the exploitative role of domestic bourgeoisies (it doesn't!). And it implies the nasty "Thirdworldist" belief that metropolitan capitalist countries are hindering development -- for these Marxists, the diffusion of capitalism is necessarily progressive, a matter of modernization, development, civilization, etc. Mainstream scholars HATE the word, precisely because it denies the postulate that advanced capitalist countries are helping, not hurting the poor countries (note the similarity to the Euro-Marxist argument).

The majority of progressive African-American and Latino scholars have no problem about applying the word "neocolony" to ghettos, migrant labor camps, reservations, prisons, etc. These places are colonial in the fundamental sense that power is used to create superexploitation of the people who inhabit them -- that is to say, lower wages, no job security, shit work, a standing reserve army, terrible housing, etc.). Sometimes superexploitation means maintaining a barracks for the reserve army, or imprisoning some people in order to force everyone else to knuckle under, etc. Not long ago there were fierce debates on the Left about the question whether the ghetto is a neocolony. As I recall, it was pretty much ONLY the white left (or much of it -- but the "much" was the influential academic crowd) that disliked the idea of comparing ghettos to colonies. But the PROCESS is the same, even if there are no political boundaries on the map.

Anyway, that's my take on the question of colonialism/imperialism.

Jim Blaut


Industrial capitalism is very much alive and well. The tense, if you want a deeper reading of it, reflects my hesitancy to endorse the view that colonialism and imperialism are necessary for *all* capitalist development, although I am definitely not in that camp you rightly criticize who sees the external activity of the core as something incidental. Let me explain myself.

I have been working on the notion of internal colonialism lately, where domestic economies are conceptualized with the core-periphery model. Here, for example in the US, black America represents a peripheral zone (complete with collaborators). If colonialism is reckoned this way, then it can only pass when there is no racialized ethnic character to capitalist exploitation. This is only (maybe) a theoretical possibility, of course, and I do not see it happening in reality. I am therefore leaning towards adopting a general colonialist model to explain the fundamentally racist features of the capitalist system, at the same time trying to maintain a critical stance towards the model, since it may exhaust its conceptual usefulness to give it such a wide application (i.e., external/internal). Some say it is a useful metaphor, but I think it is more than this; however, I want to be careful not to reify an analytic. Does that make sense? Let me explain just a littler further that in my view racialization has been historically fundamental to capitalist accumulation (and vice-versa). I believe that this way of looking at things, i.e., the colonialist model, helps us conceptualize class and racial domination as a unitary phenomenon, and thus avoid notions that race is only an ideology, class-reductionism, etc.

The tense thus reflects two points in my present considerations: (1) given certain definitions of colonialism-imperialism, the possibility that under globalization the class structure becomes so globalized that it no longer makes sense to speak about imperialism (my previous position, and one that still seems reasonable to me); and (2) the rejection of stagist theories of colonialism/imperialism in favor of a general conception that sees colonial behavior as the logic of capitalist expansion in reference not only to national entities, but to ethnic groupings internal and external to bounded juridical political units. That is probably an awkward way of putting it, but it expresses how I am leaning towards the second definition, which would then make terms like "neocolonialism" and "neoimperialism" less useful; in other words, the basic relation is colonial, it only manifests differently in particular situations (of course!). In this sense, and certainly this is empirically true, there has not been a capitalism without colonialism, which I believe is a position somewhat closer to some of the arguments you have made. In any case, I think I am moving in that direction, at least for the moment. And I am not sure yet if their is a fundamental contradiction between the way I have previous looked at things and the way I am beginning to look at things, thanks to your influence, as well as the influence of many others (such as my present mentor, Asafa Jalata).

What do you think? I apologize if that was completely confusing.

Peace, Andy


Here's a telegraphic summary of my own ideas on this question of racism/colonialism/imperialism/capitalism.

Its in a sense a split-labor market view taken back through five centuries and even, in some ways, longer. It starts (I think) with what I believe is a cultural principle that holds in essentially all class societies. The ruling class cannot, most of the time, exploit the producers to the extent that they do not retain enough income (or food, etc.) to reproduce themselves and enjoy at least minimum social life. To do so is to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. For this reason, there never was, anywhere (!), significant slavery of the sort used to accumulate surplus on a large scale WITHIN A SOCIETY, enslaving members of that society. To do so would have led to the collapse of the social system. Therefore, essentially all slavery of this type (and other types never, anywhere, were numerically or economically significant, contra conventional views about, e.g., Africa) took place either spatially outside the society -- this reflecting conquest -- or using slaves from other societies who were brought in to the society, through conquest (e.g. Rome) or trade (e.g., Athens). Cultural rules, laws or custom, mandated that the ruling class could not do certain things to members of the given society -- to kill under some conditions was murder -- but no such limitation applied to producers in conquered societies. They could be worked to death if this brought wealth to the ruling class. Or they could be genocided off the land which is then settled by producers from within the society (generating additional rent and surplus produce).

The basic point is: there has always been a split labor market! There have always been -- in the case of class societies, one of which is powerful enough to conquer another -- internal working classes and external working classes, the former superexploited (if you will), the latter just plain exploited to the limits allowing reproduction. I developed this idea first to explain the kinds of national struggles that took place before the era of modern nation-states: in cases where society A is powerful and conquers society B, class struggle by workers/producers in Society B will have two enemies: an internal and an external ruling class; likewise, the (conquered) ruling class of society B will have the internal (A) ruling class as an enemy. And both exploitation and resistance by external workers is likely to be more severe: this I then call "class struggles across a boundary." (Big chapter in my antideluvian book, The National Question, Zed 1987).

So differential treatment of the working class (defined so as to include non-capitalist producers, who, after all, work) has always tended to have differential effect on two class communities of workers: external workers, who are superexploited and often worked to death (the life expectancy of a slave in Brazil c.1700 was 8 years) and internal workers -- those from the same society as the ruling class -- who generally, in all class modes of production, can expect to survive and reproduce themselves (and the class).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, I am certain, the numerical significance of external workers, on plantations, haciendas, in workshops and mines, was greater than that of internal workers; or at least as great. European workers could not be enslaved: attempts to use them on plantations as indentured labor collapsed because of the cultural rules just mentioned. (You couldn't make a profit from sugar unless you could exploit your workers to the point of death, and killing indentured European workers would be murder since indentured laborers live under the same set of laws ("they're Englishmen!"). Its important to note that colonial plantations, mines, and genocided lands-for-settlement (e.g., the North American colonies) produced a sizeable portion of all the production then involved in the economy of metropolis AND colonies. Add to this the profits from slave-raiding and the slave trade. Apart from quantitative significance, the sectors that depoloyed slaves and other colonial (external) workers tended not to be the old, medieval, merchant class -- or at any rate not the typical members thereof -- and so colonial profits tended to be used in rather novel ways in Europe itself: colonial accumulation was new money, and led to development.

If we adopt a world scale of analysis, a la Lenin and Gunder Frank, I think we can see that the evolution of capitalism since the 18th century has continued to make use of these two working-class sectors. I am just beginning to study the industrial revolution in western Europe, but I rather think we will find that -- as Eric Williams and C.L.R. James argued long ago -- that colonial exploitation and accumulation was not only important in the industrial revolution but may have played the decisive role. (Argue this backward: were Europeans somehow smarter, more innovative, more self-denying, etc., than others? No? OK, find another INTERNAL cause for the industrial revolution and the rise of modern Europe! Once you have set aside the cultural and biological racism of e.g., Weber, you're left with the thin argument that Europe had a better natural environment than other places, and that argument can be knocked down with ease.)

This raises two obvious questions? First, How does the social-economic-political-military process that I have been describing lead to racism as ideology? I think that, in all expanding, imperializing, class societies, there has been an ideology, partly imposed on the working class and partly accepted sui generis within working-class culture, that people of other societies, different cultures, different colors, etc., are inferior, perhaps not fully human, and therefore fair game for killing and enslavement. This is a kind of ethnocentrism -- a universal attitude of no particular importance in other contexts -- that, in a conquering, expanding society, becomes a ruling ideology: we have the right to kill, enslave, take land, because we are innately better than they are. This ideology is functional, and survives through epochs of history. In the case of Europe, it emerges (I think) in c.1500 and survives today in one or another form -- still functional.

The second question of course is: how does this square with the Marxist theory of history? I don't see any real problem here if we discard a number of false notions about European history that mostly penetrated Marxist thought from the bourgeois ideology in which it floats. Before the second quarter of the 19th century, before western Europe was really industrializing, it was NOT the case that a European worker generated more surplus value than a non-European worker on account of supposed (but mythical) higher technology, productivity, and organic composition of capital. It was NOT the case that a wage worker in the colonies was somehow less of a proletarian than a wage worker in Europe. And it was NOT the case that the great slave plantations and slave-run factories were somehow far behind the "truly capitalist" enterprises. Planters an d other employers calculated carefully the economics of slave labor as against wage labor. Slave labor has to be compared with free labor (in Europe) for the SAME PERIOD OF HISTORY: mostly slave based accumulation came at a time when very few wage workers in western Europe were truly proletarian, with a "free" choice to move from employer to employer, etc. If we eliminate all such red (?) herrings, I think we'll find that colonial and semi-colonial -- external -- workers played as great as role at least in the development of capitalism as did European workers down to the present.

A lot has been written about the ugly racism used by 19th and early 20th century British and French writers, including novelists, cartoonists, and others, in portraying colonial peoples. This racism had a definite function. It grew out of earlier (post-1492) racism but it continued through the various epochs -- down to the present. We, on this list, tend to think of racism in the US as the most immediate concern, and it is. But it is applied to communities of workers who have been translocated, usually by force, from the external, colonized societies.

Therefore we had two sectors of the working class back then. The external workers were slaves, campesinos, mine workers, other non-European laborers. The internal (European) working class consisted of wage laborers in productive farms and the relatively small manufacturing sector as well as ancillary jobs [footnote: the closest thing to an English slave was an impressed sailor in the Royal Navy, who could be treated exactly like a slave OUTSIDE of England!.] In more recent times, we have colonial workers and workers translocated from colonial/external regions including the South) doing the shit jobs and barely reproducing themselves in the midst of high infant mortality and the rest. The internal workers, mostly White and European in origin, hold the same control as before of the better jobs; they are the primary sector of a two-sector working class. A two sector working class with segregated neighborhoods, schools, and the rest.

A final point, Andy. I don't think it is at all possible for racism -- as an attitude -- to be dissolved so long as this country is capitalist. Anyone who believes that US capitalism can survive without having a secondary sector of the working class to superexploit must be living on some other planet.

Enough already!

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