Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), by Vladimir Lenin, describes the formation of oligopoly, by the interlacing of bank and industrial capital, in order to create a financial oligarchy, and explains the function of financial capital in generating profits from the exploitation colonialism inherent to imperialism, as the final stage of capitalism. The essay synthesises Lenin's developments of Marx's theories of political economy in Das Kapital (1867).[1]

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism
Ленин В. И. Империализм, как высшая стадия капитализма (1917).jpg
Cover of a Russian edition of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), by Lenin.
AuthorVladimir Lenin
Original titleИмпериализм как высшая стадия капитализма
CountryRussian Republic
GenreSocial criticism
Published1917 (written 1916)


In the Prefaces to the essay, Lenin said the First World War (1914–1918) was "an annexationist, predatory, plunderous war"[2] among empires, whose historical and economic background must be studied "to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics".[3] That for capitalism to generate greater profits than the home market can yield, the merging of banks and industrial cartels produces finance capitalism, and the exportation and investment of capital to countries with undeveloped and underdeveloped economies. In turn, that financial behaviour divides the world among monopolist business companies. In colonizing undeveloped countries, business and government will engage in geopolitical conflict over the exploitation of labour of most of the population of the world. Therefore, imperialism is the highest (advanced) stage of capitalism, requiring monopolies to exploit labour and natural resources, and the exportation of finance capital, rather than manufactured goods, to sustain colonialism, which is an integral function of imperialism. Moreover, in the capitalist homeland, the super-profits yielded by the colonial exploitation of a people and their economy permit businessmen to bribe native politicians, labour leaders and the labour aristocracy (upper stratum of the working class) to politically thwart worker revolt (labour strike) and placate the working class.[4][5]

Theoretical developmentEdit

Lenin's socio-political analysis of empire as the ultimate stage of capitalism derived from Imperialism: A Study (1902) by John A. Hobson, an English economist, and Finance Capital (Das Finanzcapital, 1910) by Rudolf Hilferding, an Austrian Marxist, whose syntheses Lenin applied to the geopolitical circumstances of the First World War, caused by imperial competition among the European empires. Three years earlier, in 1914, Karl Kautsky proposed a theory of capitalist coalition, wherein the imperial powers would unite and subsume their nationalist and economic antagonisms to a system of ultra-imperialism, whereby they would jointly effect the colonialist exploitation of the underdeveloped world. Lenin countered Kautsky by proposing that the balance of power in international relations among the European empires continually changed, thereby disallowing the political unity of ultra-imperialism, and that such political instability motivated competition and conflict, rather than co-operation:

Half a century ago, Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with that of the Britain of that time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it "conceivable that in ten or twenty years' time the relative strength will have remained unchanged?" It is out of the question.[6][7]

The post–War edition of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1920) identified the territorially punitive Russo–German Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as proofs that empire and hegemony—not nationalism—were the economic motivations for the First World War.[8] In the Preface to the French and German editions of the essay, Lenin proposed that revolt against the capitalist global system would be realised with the "thousand million people" of the colonies and semi-colonies (the weak points of the imperial system), rather than with the urban workers of the industrialised societies of Western Europe.[9] That revolution would extend to the advanced (industrial) capitalist countries from the underdeveloped countries, such as Tsarist Russia, where he and the Bolsheviks had successfully assumed political command of the October Revolution of 1917.[8] In political praxis, Lenin expected to realise the theory of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism via the Third International (1919–1943), which he intellectually and politically dominated in the July and August conferences of 1920.[10]

Intellectual influenceEdit

Immanuel Wallerstein, an exponent of the World-systems theory (ca. 2008)

Lenin's use of Hobson pre-figured the core–periphery model of unequal capitalist development and exploitation. He argued in the preface to the 1920 edition of Imperialism, the structural causes of the reformist failure; that imperialism afforded ‘superprofits’ to the capitalists of the advanced countries and that

. . . out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their 'own' country) it is possible to bribe the labor leaders and the upper stratum of the labor aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the 'advanced' countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.

Making use of English economist J. A. Hobson's work, Lenin understood capitalism as world system of unequal development that created the reformist labor aristocracy in industrial countries:

Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of 'advanced' countries. And this 'booty' is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth, who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.[11]

Lenin specifically used the term "world system", which, combined with his use of J. A. Hobson and Rudolf Hilferding to emphasize the global accumulation of wealth among colonizing countries, was an insight into the global dimensions of capitalism. Such ideas were early contributions to the development of world-systems theory, but similar ideas are found in Marx's work as well. Immanuel Wallerstein adopted the term "world-systems" from Ferdinand Braudel's concept of the Mediterranean "world-economy" and applied it to the "capitalist world-economy" which is also known as "the modern world-system" as an entity that is a "world" not necessarily global in size, though it eventually became global in size, and that is a "system" through the integrated functioning of a division of labor manifest in zones: core countries, semi-periphery countries, and periphery countries. The core–periphery expression originated in dependency theory, whose proponents Raúl Prebisch, Andre Gunder Frank and Fernando Henrique Cardoso proposed that countries and colonies become peripheral zones because they specialize in the low tech and labor-intensive activities, including the supply of raw materials and cheap labor to core zone areas, and thus become "underdeveloped" through unequal exchange mechanisms consequent to colonization and/or imperialism.[12]

Publication historyEdit

In 1916, Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of the Capitalism, in Zürich, during the January–June period. The essay was first published by Zhizn i Znaniye (Life and Knowledge) Publishers, Petrograd, in mid 1917. After the First World War, he added a new Preface (6 July 1920) for the French and German editions, which was first published in the Communist International No. 18 (1921).[13]

  • Владимир Ленин (1917), Империализм, как Высшая Стадия Капитализма, Петроград: Жизнь и Знание.
  • Vladimir Lenin (1948), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
  • Vladimir Lenin (2000), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, with Introduction by Prabhat Patnaik, New Delhi: LeftWord Books
  • Vladimir Lenin (2010), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Penguin Classics.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ John Baylis and Steve Smith (2005) The Globalization of World Politics OUP: p. 231.
  2. ^ "Imperialism and Capitalism" in the Communist International, No. 18, October 1921. p. 3.
  3. ^ "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism Preface, 26 April 1917.
  4. ^ Paul Bowles (2007) Capitalism, Pearson: London. pp. 91–93
  6. ^ Alex Callinicos (2009) Imperialism and Global Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 65.
  7. ^ Lenin Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
  8. ^ a b Christopher Read (2005) Lenin. London: Routledge. pp. 116–126.
  9. ^ Vladimir Lenin (2000) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism pp. 37–38.
  10. ^ Prabhat Patnaik (2000) "Introduction" to Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, by Lenin. New Dehli, Leftword Books. pp. 10–11
  11. ^ See,
  12. ^ John Baylis and Steve Smith (2005) The Globalization of World Politics. OUP: pp. 231–235
  13. ^ Vladimir Lenin (2000) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, with Introduction by Prabhat Patnaik, New Delhi: LeftWord Books

External linksEdit