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Imperialism is the domination of a state or people over a territory or people other than its own. It often takes the form of an Empire. It may involve forcible imposition of a more powerful foreign government's control on a weaker country, or over conquered territory that was previously without a unified government; but it may also take the form of loose or indirect political or economic influence or control of weak states by more powerful ones.

Imperialism has a long history, extending from the Chinese, Assyrian, Roman, Ottoman, Mongol, and Muslim empires in Eurasia; the Ethiopian, Oyo, Luba, Lunda, and Mutapa empires and the Asante union in Africa; and the Aztec and Inca empires in America – to the modern British and United States empires.[1]

Marxist theory of imperialism

Vladimir Lenin

The most important Marxist theorist of imperialism has been Vladimir Lenin. He conceived of imperialism as the final and decadent stage of capitalism, in which the world's capital is highly centralised into "monopolies" (transnational corporations), finance capital dominates other forms of capital, and there is intense competition among the monopolies, as well as among the governments of the imperialist countries in which they are based, for control of the world's territory and resources, up to and including war. Vladimir saw the historical onset of imperialism as occurring in his own time: the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vladimir believed that imperialism is capitalism in its final, immediately pre-socialism stage because the physical organisation of production has become very large-scale, highly interconnected, and planned – in other words, production has become social – and is therefore in contradiction with the prevailing relations of private ownership and control, the natural or logical type of relations for such highly socialised production being socialism; that is, public control. The following passage from Vladimir's principal work on the subject, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) broadly outlines the phenomenon:

We must now try to sum up, to draw together the threads of what has been said above on the subject of imperialism. Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites, when the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all spheres. Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions. At the same time the monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist above it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts. Monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system.

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.

But very brief definitions, although convenient, for they sum up the main points, are nevertheless inadequate, since we have to deduce from them some especially important features of the phenomenon that has to be defined. And so, without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

(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. — First paragraphs of Part VII, "Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism".

It can be seen that the above remains a highly accurate and even prescient description of todays "globalised" world economy.

Its quintessence is monopoly

(The text in this section is adapted from Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, 1916, third paragraph):

The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms:

  1. cartels, syndicates and trusts — the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists;
  2. the monopolistic position of the big banks —three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany;
  3. seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital);
  4. the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world;
  5. the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.

Historical sequence

The history of capitalism generally begins with free competition; i.e. petty-bourgeois production), which naturally progresses to a concentration of production (bourgeois production), which continually strive towards monopolies (socialized production). Monopolies, being so contrary to the foundations of capitalism, are the greatest contradiction of capitalism, a contradiction rampant in the imperialist stage – for every business not only strives toward, but needs to dominate markets completely, to become a monopoly.[2]

The epoch of imperialism opens when the expansion of colonialism has covered the globe and no new colonies can be acquired by the great powers except by taking them from each other, and the concentration of capital has grown to a point where finance capital becomes dominant over industrial capital.[3]

Imperialism, as the highest stage of capitalism in America and Europe, and later in Asia, took final shape in the period 1898–1914. The Spanish-American War (1898), the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and the economic crisis in Europe in 1900 are the chief historical landmarks in the new era of world history. — Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (1916, fourth paragraph).

Contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Decadence of imperialism

"[Imperialism] is something quite different from the old free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market. Concentration [of production] has reached the point at which it is possible to make an approximate estimate of all sources of raw materials (for example, the iron ore deposits)... [throughout] the whole world. Not only are such estimates made, but these sources are captured by gigantic monopolist associations [now called multi-national conglomerates]. An approximate estimate of the capacity of markets is also made, and the associations "divide" them up amongst themselves by agreement. Skilled labor is monopolized, the best engineers are engaged; the means of transport are captured – railways in America, shipping companies in Europe and America. Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialization of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialization.

"Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognized free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable." — Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

"The fact that imperialism is parasitic or decaying capitalism is manifested first of all in the tendency to decay, which is characteristic of every monopoly under the system of private ownership of the means of production. The difference between the democratic-republican and the reactionary-monarchist imperialist bourgeoisie is obliterated precisely because they are both rotting alive (which by no means precludes an extraordinarily rapid development of capitalism in individual branches of industry, in individual countries, and in individual periods). Secondly, the decay of capitalism is manifested in the creation of a huge stratum of rentiers, capitalists who live by “clipping coupons”. In each of the four leading imperialist countries—England, U.S.A., France and Germany—capital in securities amounts to 100,000 or 150,000 million francs, from which each country derives an annual income of no less than five to eight thousand million. Thirdly, export of capital is parasitism raised to a high pitch. Fourthly, “finance capital strives for domination, not freedom”. Political reaction all along the line is a characteristic feature of imperialism. Corruption, bribery on a huge scale and all kinds of fraud. Fifthly, the exploitation of oppressed nations—which is inseparably connected with annexations—and especially the exploitation of colonies by a handful of “Great” Powers, increasingly transforms the “civilised” world into a parasite on the body of hundreds of millions in the uncivilised nations. The Roman proletarian lived at the expense of society. Modern society lives at the expense of the modern proletarian. Marx specially stressed this profound observation of Sismondi.[4] Imperialism somewhat changes the situation. A privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions in the uncivilised nations.

"It is clear why imperialism is moribund capitalism, capitalism in transition to socialism: monopoly, which grows out of capitalism, is already dying capitalism, the beginning of its transition to socialism. The tremendous socialisation of labour by imperialism (what its apologists-the bourgeois economists-call “interlocking”) produces the same result." — Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (1916, 5th and 6th paragraphs).

Soviet text

The text in this section probably came from an official Soviet textbook or encyclopedia.

Capitalism developed into imperialism at the beginning of the 20th century. Lenin defined it as follows: " 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." [5]

The inception of monopolies was objectively prepared for by changes in capitalist production. The development of machine industry, the increase in the scale of production and the emergence of new industries bring a concentration of production in large enterprises employing a considerable share of the workers occupied in the relevant branch and turning out the major part of its produce. Joint-stock companies, which promoted the centralisation of capital, also enhanced the appearance of large companies. The concentration of production and the concentration and centralisation of capital reach a level at which a single company (trust) or a group of companies which conclude an agreement (syndicate or cartel) can establish its own rules on the market and fix monopoly prices, since they turn out a considerable part of the total output of a certain product. Thus, the capitalism of free competition is replaced by monopoly capitalism. Monopolisation is accompanied by a concentration and centralisation of banking capital, and a small group of banks and other financial institutions come to the fore; they concentrate credits, insurance, payments and settlement and other financial operations in their own hands. The emergence of monopolies in industry and of large banks inevitably results in a merging of industrial and banking capital and the formation of finance capital, which is the highest form of concentration and centralisation of capital; the richest owners of capital establish their domination over the economies of the main capitalist countries. Finance capital is embodied in the financial oligarchy, the upper crust of the bourgeoisie, controlling industry, trade, the banks, etc.

Monopolies are formed to obtain monopoly profits, which are higher than the average profit and which are procured not only through greater exploitation of the working people, but also through a redistribution of the entire mass of profit to the benefit of the monopolies.

The formation of monopolies is accompanied by increased international expansion of the highly-developed capitalist countries. "The surplus of capital”, which cannot be applied or yield adequate profit (from the monopoly point of view), at home, is exported, first and foremost to backward countries where "the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap" [6]. The export of capital becomes a factor in the economic subjugation of the countries that have lagged behind in their development.

As monopolies grow and strengthen their positions by exporting capital, the largest of them come to agreements about dividing up the world market, and the monopolisation process begins on the world arena. The formation of international monopolies exacerbates the struggle waged among imperialist countries. The world’s economic division, effected on the basis of international cartel agreements, can never be considered as final, for uneven development and changes in the balance of forces of the monopolies of different countries inevitably cause a redivision of markets. The trend toward monopolising markets, sources of raw materials and spheres of capital investment brings about a territorial division of the world, which is a major feature of imperialism. The colonial system of imperialism had formed by the beginning of the 20th century. The mechanism of the economic domination of the developed capitalist countries is supplemented, as a result of the export of capital and the activities of international monopolies, by a mechanism of non– economic coercion. At the stage of imperialism, capitalism turns into a world-wide system of oppression.

The emergence of monopolies caused fundamental changes in the way the capitalist economy operates. The free flow of capital that, under free competition, ensured the development of various branches of the economy, has been seriously impeded. State intervention in the economy becomes inevitable, for its typical contradictions are aggravated at the stage of imperialism.

Imperialism is parasitic and decaying capitalism. The monopoly, which is the deepest economic base of this system, and the related possibility of obtaining high profits by establishing monopoly prices, inevitably generate a tendency to stagnate. Monopoly does not eliminate competition, so the conditions are created for capitalists to strive to raise their profits by lowering the cost of production as well. The tendency towards stagnation can, nevertheless, gain the upper hand in the economies of individual countries or industries for certain periods of time. The parasitism of the top bourgeoisie, the financial oligarchy, which more often than not does not take any part in economic activities but pockets huge revenues in the form of dividends on shares and bonds, increases under imperialism. The receipt of revenues from external sources, particularly from the export of capital, which is, as Lenin aptly put it, "parasitism raised to a high pitch" [7], enhances chances for the emergence of a large group of individuals and states living on interest. Imperialism is characterised by a strengthening of militarism and is fraught with the danger of wars waged by the imperialist powers for the division and re-division of the world. One manifestation of parasitism is the growth of nonproductive expenditures, the expansion of the financial sphere and the bureaucratic government machine, as well as that of bourgeois political parties, and the spending of huge sums to befuddle the population ideologically. In political terms, imperialism is characterised by an overall strengthening of reactionary trends. The financial oligarchy strives to establish reactionary regimes that would suppress the workers’ and the national liberation movements.

Imperialism is a special stage of capitalism—the highest. The substitution of capitalist monopolies for capitalist free competition signifies that certain basic features of capitalism turn into their opposites. The exacerbation of capitalism’s basic contradiction—that between the social nature of production and the private form of appropriation– leads, under imperialism, to an aggravation of all the contradictions inherent in capitalist society. The contradiction between the monopoly bourgeoisie and the working class reaches an unprecedented pitch. The contradictions between the imperialist monopolies and the peoples of the colonial and dependent countries are also exacerbated. Imperialism is moribund capitalism. In the age of imperialism, the creation of the objective and subjective prerequisites for socialism to replace capitalism is completed; these prerequisites do not emerge simultaneously in all countries, however. The uneven economic and political development of countries typical of imperialism results in these prerequisites ripening first in a single country, or in several countries. The collapse of capitalism as a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, which was the weakest link of the imperialist system, signified the beginning of the collapse of the entire imperialist system (see General Crisis of Capitalism). The victorious socialist revolutions that took place after World War II in several European and Asian countries, and somewhat later in Cuba, narrowed the sphere of imperialism still further. The collapse of its colonial system was a major blow to imperialism. (see Disintegration of the Colonial System).

Contemporary imperialism, which is no longer a world-wide system and has to coexist with socialism (q. v.), the new advanced, progressive social system, has acquired some new characteristics. The scientific and technological revolution (q. v.) has made further socialisation of production objectively necessary. The process takes on capitalist forms and is manifest in the unprecedented concentration and centralisation of capital and the monopolisation of the capitalist economy which overlaps the boundaries of national states as it gives birth to mammoth multinational corporations, concentrating the greater part of the capitalist world’s production. Monopoly domination is spreading to all sectors of [p.114] the capitalist economy, including agriculture, trade, and other spheres in which petty-commodity and small-capitalist production persist. The state-monopoly nature of contemporary capitalism is becoming more pronounced. There appear international forms of state-monopoly capitalism, such as capitalist integration (q. v.). State intervention in the economy does not, however, eliminate its fundamental contradictions, particularly the cyclic nature of reproduction, fraught with economic crises. Social antagonisms assume broader scope and become still more acute. Immense property is concentrated in the hands of the small financial oligarchy, this resulting in an aggravation of the contradictions not only between the monopoly bourgeoisie and the working class, but also between the monopoly bourgeoisie and the broad population—peasants, intellectuals and small proprietors, who are increasingly pressurised by monopolies. Hence the exacerbation of the class struggle in the capitalist countries, which undermines the sway of the monopolies and enhances the instability and contradictions inherent in imperialism.

Imperialism also makes the people in the imperialist country less free

Lenin argued as early as 1907 that the demand for self-determination of colonial or dependent peoples was no less necessary in the interests of the working class of the metropolitan country than of the colony. He quoted Marx to the effect that "a people which oppresses others cannot be free"; and he noted a remark of the pro-imperialist Englishman, Cecil Rhodes: "The Empire ... is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists." Lenin did not believe that genuine democracy could be established in Russia until the non-Russian peoples were treated as equal citizens and their territories were given the right to secede or become autonomous if the inhabitants wished. In order to hold down other peoples by force, armies of occupation were required, national hatred was generated, religious, class and national inequalities were increased; and all this strengthened the despotic power of the autocracy over the Russian people as well as over the peoples of the dependent nations.[8]

Lenin on labour aristocracy

See Chris Hill, p 145.

Role of high consumption levels in contributing to imperialism

“The essence of the problem is about consumption, recognizing that a society that consumes one-third of the world's resources is unsustainable. This level of consumption requires constant intervention into other people's lands. That's what's going on.” ― Winona LaDuke

Other works


  1. The United States empire comprises U.S. expansionism (`Manifes Destiny', etc.) during the 19th century, and the U.S.'s economic and cultural imperialism, espionage and foreign military intervention, `super-power' status and activities as self-appointed world police in the 20th-21st centuries.
  2., Encyclopedia of Marxism, "Imperialism".
  3., Encyclopedia of Marxism, "Imperialism".
  4. See Karl Marx, Preface to the second edition of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p.6.
  5. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22, pp. 266–67
  6. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 241
  7. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23, p. 106
  8. Text adapted from Chris Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (1947) pp 139-40.

Further Reading

Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution. 1947. A source of information on Lenin's views on Imperialism. Author sounds like he might be a Marxist. text (about 350 kB) , .pdf and other formats also available from