Introduction to 'Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism'

Introduction by Doug Lorimer

I. Lenin's aims in writing this work

The term "imperialism" came into common usage in England in the 1890s as a development of the older term "empire" by the advocates of a major effort to extend the British Empire in opposition to the policy of concentrating on national economic development, the supporters of which the advocates of imperialism dismissed as "Little Englanders". The term was rapidly taken into other languages to describe the contest between rival European states to secure colonies and spheres of influence in Africa and Asia, a contest that dominated international politics from the mid-1880s to 1914, and caused this period to be named the "age of imperialism".

The first systematic critique of imperialism was made by the English bourgeois social-reformist economist John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940) in his 1902 book Imperialism: A Study, which, as Lenin observes at the beginning of his own book on the subject, "gives a very good and comprehensive description of the principal specific economic and political features of imperialism" (see below, p. 33).

Lenin had long been familiar with Hobson's book. Indeed, in a letter written from Geneva to his mother in St. Petersburg on August 29, 1904, Lenin stated that he had just "received Hobson's book on imperialism and have begun translating it" into Russian.(1)

In a number of his writings between 1895 and 1913, Lenin had noted some of the characteristics of the imperialist epoch, for example: the concentration of production and the growth of monopolistic trusts and cartels, the growing importance of the export of capital compared with the export of commodities, the internationalisation of capitalist economic relations, the struggle between the rival European powers to partition the world market, the parasitism and decay of capitalism, and the creation throughcapitalism's socialisation of production of the material conditions for the transition to socialism.

However, it was not until the outbreak of the World War I in August 1914 that Lenin felt the need to make a comprehensive and systematic Marxist analysis of the nature of the imperialist stage of capitalism, i.e., to go beyond the analysis made by Hobson in 1902 and by the Austrian Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding in his 1910 book Finance Capital. The latter work, Lenin stated in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, "gives a very valuable theoretical analysis of `the latest phase of capitalist development', as the subtitle runs" (see below, p. 33)(2).

Given his comments on both Hobson's and Hilferding's works, why then did Lenin feel the need to produce his own analysis of imperialism? Lenin himself provides the answer in his 1920 preface to the French and German editions of his book. The "main purpose of the book", Lenin explained, was "to present, on the basis of the summarised returns of irrefutable bourgeois statistics, and the admissions of bourgeois scholars of all countries, a composite picture of the world capitalist system in its international relationships at the beginning of the 20th century — on the eve of the first world imperialist war". In doing this, Lenin had three objectives in mind:

1. To prove that "the war of 1914-18 was imperialist (this is, an annexationist, predatory war of plunder) on the part of both sides" and thus to refute the arguments of the leaders of the Second International, above all those of its leading theorist, Karl Kautsky, that each side in the war was merely fighting for "national defence" and therefore there was nothing opportunist or class-collaborationist in these leaders supporting the war efforts of the governments of their own countries.

2. To counter the theoretical arguments of Kautsky about the nature of imperialism and to demonstrate that he was "obscuring the profundity of the contradictions of imperialism and the inevitable revolutionary crisis to which it gives rise".

Kautsky did this, firstly, by arguing that it was wrong to "identify with imperialism all the phenomena of present-day capitalism — cartels, protection, the domination of the financiers, and colonial policy". That is, according to Kautsky, imperialism was not a "phase" of capitalist economic development but a "special policy" of capital, which "consists in the striving of every industrial capitalist nation to bring under its control or to annex ever bigger areas of agrarian territory, irrespective of what nations inhabit them".(3) Secondly, proceeding from this view of imperialism, Kautsky argued that this "special policy" might be superseded after the world war by a new policy, that of "the extension of the policy of the cartels to foreign policy, the phase of ultraimperialism", i.e., the peaceful uniting of all the rival finance groups into a single,world-wide trust and the "abolition of imperialism through a holy alliance of the imperialists".(4) Lenin sought to counter this argument by demonstrating that imperialism was the highest and last stage of the development of capitalism.

3. To demonstrate that there was a causal connection between this new stage in the development of capitalism and the existence of a relatively stable opportunist, pro-imperialist, trend within the working-class movement of the "advanced" capitalist countries. As Lenin noted at the end of his 1920 preface:

Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problems of the Communist movement and of the impending social revolution.

However, the "economic roots of this phenomenon" and its "political and social significance" were only outlined briefly in the book. They were taken up more thoroughly in the article "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism", printed here as an appendix. This was published in Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata — the war-time theoretical supplement to Sotsial-Demokrata, central organ of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) — in October 1916, a few months after Lenin had completed writing his book on imperialism. The book itself was written between January and June of 1916, though Lenin started research for it in mid-1915. However, it was not published until the middle of 1917.

II. The fundamental characteristics of the new stage of capitalism

The closing years of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th had been marked by a succession of wars — between China and Japan in 1894, Spain and the USA in 1898, Britain and the Boer republic in South Africa in 1899, Japan and Russia in 1904, Italy and Turkey in 1911, the Balkan states and Turkey in 1912, and between the Balkan states themselves in 1913. This ascending wave of wars culminated in outbreak of the first world war in 1914.

The "Great War" of 1914-18 brought into stark view a significant quality that had marked, on a growing scale, the wars of the "age of imperialism" — the struggle between the "Great Powers" for hegemony of the world and the control of its economic resources, actual and potential. It constituted concrete evidence that, as Lenin put it in his 1920 preface to his Imperialism:

Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people 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 (America, Great Britain, Japan), who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.

Imperialism was therefore not to be explained as merely a change in the foreign policies of the governments of the "advanced" countries, but as a change in the nature of capitalist relations of production. While cautioning that it was necessary not to forget "the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development", Lenin pointed out that 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, he added, "would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital [i.e., the money capital] of a few 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".

Lenin noted "five basic features" as the imperialist stage of capitalism:

(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.

Taken separately each of these phenomena shows a degree of becoming a difference in kind. But in their totality, they represent a transformation of quantity into quality — a qualitatively new stage in the development of capitalism. Taken as a whole, their central characteristic is the transformation of free competition into its opposite, into monopoly. This indicates that the distinguishing features of imperialism are not to be dismissed as superficial or temporary aberrations, accidentally modifying the "normal course" of capitalism. They indicate that the essential production relations of capitalism have developed all the potentialities latent within their primary antagonism (socialisation of the productive process and private appropriation of the results of this process), and that before any further development of the social relations of production is possible the antagonism itself must be eliminated. This can be seenmost clearly if we examine in succession each of the five basic features of imperialism distinguished by Lenin.

III. Monopoly as the logical outcome of capitalism

The concentration of capital and of production in the hands of fewer and fewer firms follows inevitably from the social conditions of capitalist production, among which the most general are (a) the social division of labour from which springs the differentiation of the various branches of production, and (b) private ownership of the means of production. Given these things and competition exists in its germinal form. Given the further development of (a) commodity production and (b) the appearance on the market of labour-power as a commodity, and the conditions exist for the development of competition into its capitalist form. Capitalist production bursts the bounds which constrained competition and made it an essential and a universal condition of production. Competition imposed upon each capitalist owner of means of production the need to cheapen the production of commodities. In other words, it made it imperative for each capitalist firm to produce on a higher scale, i.e., with larger masses of better organised and more thoroughly exploited workers equipped with more mechanised instruments of production. In short, capitalism both extended and intensified competition, and with it the elimination of the less well-equipped producers. The logical end of this elimination could be none other than one solitary ultimate victor.

Concretely, however, certain difficulties must be overcome before this end can be attained. The field of direct competition is divided into different branches of production and a number of different centres (local and national markets which only in their aggregation constitute a world market). Thus before a lone survivor could be reached on a world scale, lone survivors must first have been evolved in each of these branches of production and in each of these centres.

But the evolution of an absolute monopoly in any one branch of production (steel production, say) on a world scale cuts across and conflicts with the evolution of a monopolist control of any local or national market, or economy. Thus the tendency towards monopoly, the more sure and certain it becomes, cannot realise itself in a smooth, linear fashion but must proceed dialectically, i.e., by the creation and progressive surmounting of a whole series of violent antagonisms. Moreover, since the rate of development, owing to physical, historical and political conditions, as well as economic ones, cannot help but vary from time to time, from industry to industry, and from country to country, the force and complexity of these antagonisms and theirdialectical consequences cannot help but be multiplied beyond all reckoning. Hence, although the tendency towards monopoly must be recognised as an absolute law of capitalist production, it by no means gives grounds for the utopian reformist-socialist dream of a peaceful transition, through a regular process of "inevitable gradualness", from capitalist competition to a world monopoly (or a number of national monopolies) which could be peacefully "taken over" by the state "on behalf of the people".

If the process is viewed not in its abstract unity, but in its concrete and multiform totality, it will be seen that the tendency toward monopoly is one that can only realise itself approximately, and never absolutely, since in its concrete forms each detail tendency engenders a resistance to itself which can only be transcended by engendering resistance on a higher plane, and so on, progressively, until a crisis either of war or of social revolution (or of both) is precipitated.

In other words, while the tendency towards monopoly does in fact involve the negation of competition within a number of spheres of production and exchange of commodities, it produces at the same time over the whole field of capitalist economy, and still more over the whole field of bourgeois society, an intensification of competitive antagonisms, so that the (approximate) attainment of monopoly, instead of eliminating competition (and antagonism) from society, on the contrary, raises them progressively to a higher and more destructive scale. This is seen most clearly when it is borne in mind that competition is of many kinds. There is, for example, the general competition between those who buy and those who sell, as well as the competition of the sellers and buyers among themselves. The elimination of competition among the sellers, instead of eliminating competition among the buyers, only intensifies these latter forms of competition.

The tendency towards monopoly is concretised into a system with the emergence of a new category of capital, that of finance capital. This again gives an example of the transformation of quantity into quality. As a capitalist industrial enterprise (in steel production, for example) rises to a position of monopolistic dominance in its specific industry it finds itself, as trade fluctuates, at one time possessed of more money capital (realised profits) than it needs for the expansion of its business and, at another, faced with emergency needs for fresh money-capital. In the one phase it invests its surplus in bank capital; in the other it gives a share in its capital to the bank in exchange for a loan. A parallel process goes on with the banks, and the two complementary processes end with the merging of the capital of a monopolistic industrial firm and a monopolistic banking company to form a new type of monopolistic enterprise which transcends the limitations of industry and banking each in themselves,and carries the process of domination to a higher and a more comprehensive scale. With the formation of finance capital begins the process of bringing the economy of the country of its origin under the domination of a small group of financial oligarchs.

This process has another and even more far-reaching aspect. Insofar as monopoly is attained it makes possible (if only temporarily) the stabilisation of prices and the limitation of production to the estimated needs of the monopoly-controlled market. By doing this, relative excess of production is eliminated along with redundant managerial and sales staffs. As a result, the monopoly obtains an increased volume of profit in circumstances which preclude further investment of capital within its own sphere. Hence the export of capital takes on an ever-growing importance. The world becomes partitioned more and more, and in two distinct ways. Economically, the export of capital facilitates the development both of horizontal and of vertical monopolies, i.e., the bringing of a given industry under the control of an international monopoly, and the establishment of monopoly control of a series of industries which work up raw material from its point of natural origin to its final complete form. These processes intersect, collide, and also combine to give rise to higher forms of monopoly. Ultimately, both of them converge on the two extreme points of (a) control of the sources of origin of indispensable materials and (b) control of markets in which to dispose of finished products. Both thus add impetus to the partitioning of much of the Earth's territory into "spheres of influence" among the rival imperialist powers. And since this process of imperialist partitioning had been completed (approximately) by the end of the 19th century — and the economic forces impelling imperialist expansion still continued — it followed of necessity that there had to become manifest yet another transformation of "quantity into quality": the process of imperialist expansion brought the imperialist powers (the politico-military representatives of rival financial oligarchies) to the point at which further expansion could only be attained at each other's expense.

The history of monopoly capitalism is at the same time the history of the strengthening of the state power within each of the "advanced" capitalist countries and its use to further the interests of the finance capitalists of its own country on the world market. At the beginning of this process the spokespeople of the most advanced and most expansionist capitalist powers were often quite forthright about the use of state power to defend and promote these interests. Thus, in 1907, Woodrow Wilson, who was to become US president in 1912, declared: "Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process."(5) Wilson's secretary of state William Jennings Bryan was equally candid, telling a gathering of US financiers: "I can say, not merely in courtesy— but as a fact — my department is your department; the ambassadors, the ministers, and the consuls are all yours. It is their business to look after your interests and to guard your rights."(6)

By the beginning of the 20th century the penetrating power of finance capital had brought about a complete transformation of the relations between the "sovereign states" which made up what bourgeois journalists and bourgeois politicians loved to call the "community of nations". Whereas in diplomatic theory all sovereign states meet and do business as equals (i.e., equally "sovereign" within their territory). finance capital brings into being a differentiation of states into debtors and creditors. This inter-linking of states, the subordination of the great majority of states to the financial overlordship of a few financially rich powers, supplements the open territorial partition of the world. Its result was that by 1914 virtually every state in the world outside the few "Great Powers" (Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the USA and Russia) was a financial vassal of one or another of these "empires". And, since each of these "empires" was impelled by the need to "expand" still further, it could only expand at the expense of one or more of the others. Thus the cause of imperialism (and imperialist war) was shown to be the development of capitalism into a new and higher stage in which its antagonisms had reached a point that further development could only be expressed through veiled or open inter-imperialist war on the one hand, and in potential or actual revolutionary uprisings on the other.

Summing up this whole process, Lenin wrote in December 1915:

It is highly important to have in mind that this change was caused by nothing but the direct development, growth, continuation of the deep-seated and fundamental tendencies of capitalism and production of commodities in general. The growth of commodity exchange, the growth of large-scale production are fundamental tendencies observable for centuries throughout the whole world. At a certain stage in the development of exchange, at a certain stage in the growth of large-scale production, namely, at the stage that was reached approximately at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, commodity exchange had created such an internationalisation of economic relations, and such an internationalisation of capital, accompanied by such a vast increase in large-scale production, that free competition began to be replaced by monopoly. The prevailing types were no longer enterprises freely competing inside the country and through intercourse between countries, but monopoly alliances of entrepreneurs, trusts. The typical ruler of the world became finance capital, a power that is peculiarly mobile and flexible, peculiarly intertwined at home and internationally, peculiarly devoid of individuality and divorced from the immediate processes of production, peculiarly easy to concentrate, a power that has already made peculiarly large strides on the road to concentration, so that literally several hundred billionaires and millionaires hold in their hands the fate of the whole world.(7)

IV. The highest and last stage of capitalism

It may be objected that, while Lenin showed that imperialism was a new and higher stage of development of capitalism, he did not and could not show that this was the "highest" possible developmental stage of capitalism. The answer to that objection is that it proceeds from the assumption that the possibilities of development open to a given historically-conditioned social form of production are unlimited. The whole facts and processes analysed by Marx, and Lenin, show on the contrary that only a specifically limited and conditioned development of the productive forces is possible to each historically determined social form of production:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.(8)

Two outstanding phenomena indicated by Marx as characteristic of the culminating phase of capitalism are shown by Lenin to have developed in the monopoly finance stage. These were (1) parasitism and (2) the partial recognition of the social character of production. The formation of joint-stock companies involves, Marx observed:

1. Tremendous expansion in the scale of production, and enterprises which would be impossible for individual capitals. At the same time, enterprises that were previously government ones become social.

2. Capital, which is inherently based on a social mode of production and presupposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, now receives the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) in contrast to private capital, its enterprises appear as social enterprises as opposed to private ones. This is the abolition of capital as private property within the confines of the capitalist mode of production itself.

3. Transformation of the actual functioning capitalist into a mere manager, in charge of other people's money, and of the capital owner into a mere owner, a mere money capitalist. Even if the dividends that they draw include both interest and profit of enterprise, i.e., the total profit (for the manager's salary is or should be simply the wage for a certain kind of skilled labour, its price is regulated in the labour market like that of any other labour), this total profit is still drawn in the form of interest, i.e., as a mere reward for capital ownership, which is now as completely separated from its function in the actual production process as this function, in the person of the manager, is from capital ownership. Profit thus appears (and no longer just the part of it, interest, that obtains its justification from the profit of the borrower) as simply the appropriation of other people's surplus labour, arising from the transformation of means of production into capital, i.e., their estrangement vis-a-vis the actual producer; from their opposition, as the property of another, vis-a-vis all individuals really active in production from the manager down to the lowest day-labourer. In joint-stock companies, the function is separated from capital ownership, so labour is also completely separated from ownership of the means of production and of surplus labour. The result of capitalist production in its highest development is a necessary point of transition towards the transformation of capital [as means of production — DL] back into the property of the producers, though no longer as the private property of individual producers, but rather as their property as associated producers, as directly social property. It is furthermore a point of transition towards the transformation of all functions formerly bound up with capital ownership in the reproduction process into simple functions of the associated producers, into social functions …

This is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as a mere point of transition to a new form of production. It presents itself as such a contradiction even in appearance. It gives rise to monopoly in certain spheres and hence provokes state intervention. It reproduces a new financial aristocracy, a new kind of parasite in the guise of company promoters, speculators and merely nominal directors; an entire system of swindling and cheating with respect to the promotion of companies, issues of shares and share dealings. It is private production unchecked by private ownership.(9)

In a supplementary note to the first edition of Volume 3 of Marx's Capital, Engels wrote in 1894 that "since 1865", when Marx wrote the above quoted comments, "a change has occurred that gives the stock exchange of today a significantly increased role, and a constantly growing one at that, which, as it develops further, has the tendency to concentrate the whole of production, industrial as well as agricultural, together with the whole of commerce — means of communication as well as the exchange function — in the hands of stock-exchange speculators, so that the stock exchange becomes the most pre-eminent representative of capitalist production as such". Engels explained that in 1865:

… the stock exchange was still a secondary element in the capitalist system … Now it is different … accumulation [of capital] has proceeded at an ever growing pace, and in such a way moreover that no industrial country … can the extension of production keep step with that of accumulation, or the accumulation of the individual capitalist be fully employed in the expansion of his own business … With this accumulation, there is also a growth in the number of rentiers, people who have tired of routine exertion in business and who simply want to amuse themselves or pursue only a light occupation as directors of companies.(10)

Lenin did not have to invent a new theory to arrive at the conclusion that monopoly finance capitalism was the highest stage of development of capitalism. He merely had to show that the features that Marx had described as characteristic of this stage — joint-stock companies; separation of capital ownership from managerial functions in the immediate process of production; monopolies; the emergence of a "financial aristocracy"; parasitism in the form of rentiers, of nominal company directors and stock-exchange swindlers — had become the dominant and typical form of capitalist business activity at the beginning of the 20th century. Lenin's description of the monopoly finance stage of capitalism as its highest stage — the stage which exhausts its possibilities of "evolutionary" as distinct from revolutionary development — was a faithful application of Marx's conception of "capitalist production in its highest development", i.e., that the complete socialisation of the labour process involved the complete separation of the productive function of capital from the ownership of capital, a separation which becomes obvious when, in its parasitic rentier form, profit presents itself "as simply the appropriation of other people's labour" as a result of the alienation of ownership of capital from all individuals actually involved in the labour process.

This alienation is involved in capitalist production from the beginning. It is the inner relation which constitutes the essence of the capitalist form of commodity production. When, therefore, from being the inner relation connecting individual workers and individual capitalists in the production process, it becomes outwardly expressed as a fully-developed social antagonism — as a social conflict between the actual producers, associated by the production process into a collective individuality on one side, and the exploiting non-producers, equally associated by their ownership into a collective individuality opposite to theirs — it is obvious that (a) no further development of capitalist relations of production is possible; (b) that the social antagonism has become the starting point for a transition to a new social form of the productive process; and (c) that this starting point has its material basis and itsgeneral form in the positive and negative poles of the social antagonism itself, i.e., in associated production by associated owners for the satisfaction of their individual and common needs.

This was what Lenin meant when he described monopoly finance capitalism as "moribund", "decaying" capitalism — not, as is often assumed by his critics, that he was claiming it had become an absolute barrier to the revolutionising of the technical basis of production or to the quantitative expansion of productive forces. Rather, he argued that it had become a fetter, a constraint, on the fullest possible development of the productive forces, that it exhibited a tendency toward increasingly uneven development of the productive forces, and toward the stagnation of the growth of productive forces in the countries richest in capital:

… monopoly under capitalism can never completely, and for a very long period of time, eliminate competition in the world market (and this, by the by, is one of the reasons why the theory of ultra-imperialism is so absurd) … the possibility of reducing the cost of production and increasing profits by introducing technical improvements operates in the direction of change. But the tendency to stagnation and decay, which is characteristic of monopoly, continues to operate, and in some branches of industry, in some countries, for certain periods of time, it gains the upper hand …

It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a greater or lesser degree, now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries richest in capital (Britain).(11)

Insofar as he treated the monopoly finance stage of capitalism as its highest stage, and, therefore, as the stage of capitalism that had created the material basis for the transition to socialism, Lenin was merely reiterating and reinforcing the conclusions already drawn, in germinal form, by Marx.

V. Imperialism and the social roots of labour opportunism

Lenin's description of monopoly finance capitalism as "dying" capitalism, as capitalism "in transition to socialism", also did not mean that he believed that this meant capitalism would automatically give way to socialism — as the reformist- socialists, beginning with Eduard Bernstein in the 1890s, argued, completely misrepresenting Marx's concept of the "inevitable collapse" of capitalism.

The beginning of an epoch of social revolution meant for Marx that further development of the productive forces made it necessary to overthrow the existing social form of production and replace it with a new social form. But if such a social revolution was not actually carried out, this would not mean that the existing social form would persist forever. To the contrary, once it had developed "all the productive forces for which there is room in it", this social form would collapse ("perish")(12), leading to a regression in the social form of production, to "the common ruin of the contending classes" — unless there was a "revolutionary re-constitution of society at large"(13).

If analysing imperialism as the culmination of the development of capitalism involved the application of Marx's theory of the concentration of capital (and production), so the extension and deepening by Lenin of Marx's conception of an epoch of social revolution as an epoch of the decay and revolutionary overthrow of capitalism (as distinct from and opposed to opportunist-idealist theories of its gradual "evolution" into socialism) involved an extension and deepening of Marx and Engels' analysis of the impact of monopoly under capitalism on the working class and what this entailed for organising a proletarian revolution.

Marx and Engels had frequently derided the English working class for becoming "more and more bourgeois" in its outlook during the period of the second half of the 19th century. England's working class at that time was the largest and by far the most organised in the world. Marx and Engels had observed, at close quarters, the growing efforts of the English labour leaders to win "respectability" with the employers and bourgeois politicians. Engels took up this issue in detail in his 1892 preface to the English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England. He began by noting that England had developed into an exceptional capitalist country between 1848 and the 1870s. It held vast colonial possessions and enjoyed a virtual monopoly of industrial production within the world market. The English capitalists reaped immense profits from this monopoly, which they used a part of to grant important economic, cultural and political concessions to the English working class in exchange for its expected loyalty to the international policies of the English industrialists, a loyalty that was mediated and obscured through the fostering of "national pride" and English national chauvinism.

Engels concluded that the condition of the English working class had generally improved during this period, but that the concessions were unevenly distributed and primarily accrued to a "small, privileged, `protected' minority [who] permanently benefited".(14) Even for the great bulk of workers, "There was temporary improvementBut this improvement always was reduced to the old level by the influx of the great body of the unemployed reserve, by the constant superseding of hands by new machinery, by the immigration of the agricultural population …"(15)

Who, then, constituted the "privileged" and "protected" minority that was able, by and large, to stay out of the "reserve army" of unemployed and to avoid the full brunt of the "normal" mechanisms of capitalist production that undermined gains by workers? Engels identified two sections of the English working class — the factory hands (primarily located in the textile mills and iron foundries of the north) and the members of the "great Trades Unions" (headquartered in London). This minority of workers, he wrote, "form an aristocracy among the working class; they have succeeded in enforcing for themselves a relatively comfortable position, and they accept it as final … They are model working men … and they are very nice people indeed nowadays to deal with, for any sensible capitalist in particular and the whole capitalist class in general".(16)

Politically, Engels observed that it was prudent policy for the English industrial capitalists to form alliances with the better situated and organised strata of the rapidly growing proletariat. Perhaps the most striking change was in the industrialists' attitude to the labour unions. "Trades Unions", Engels wrote, "hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more notorious up to 1848, were now gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time".(17)

The defeat of the Chartist movement in 1848, followed by a long period of concessions, had the "natural" corrupting result that the politically active sections of the working class, located entirely in the unions, began supporting England's colonial policy and adopting liberal-bourgeois politics as their own. Further, within the working-class movement, the more protected workers upheld exclusionary policies, particularly aggravating the split between English- and Irish-born sections of the proletariat.

From Marx and Engels' descriptions and analysis of the rise in England of labour opportunism — the sacrificing of the long-term interests of the working class as a whole to gaining immediate advantages for a minority of workers — Lenin abstracted out the central theoretical point: the stubborn phenomenon of opportunism among English workers had an economic basis in the fact that the dominant world position of English capitalism had produced superprofits which allowed the English bourgeoisie to make significant economic, cultural and political concessions to the "upper strata"of the proletariat. These concessions, a complex set of phenomena including expansion of the social wage, and access to educational, cultural and political institutions, denied to the lower mass of the proletariat, served as a material basis for the creation of a thoroughly opportunist, class-collaborationist trend rooted in a large labour aristocracy of privileged and protected workers as well as the conspicuous rise of bourgeois-reformist illusions and national chauvinism among the politically active English workers.

Lenin, however, did not rest with extracting the essence of Marx and Engels' analysis of opportunism in the working-class movement in 19th century England. Rather he extended and deepened this analysis by applying it to the imperialist stage of capitalism. Essentially, he argued that the emergence of monopoly capitalism had produced in a handful of countries the extended, rather than temporary, basis for the extraction of superprofits by the dominant section of the ruling bourgeoisie, the financial oligarchy. On the other hand, to assure continued political stability bourgeois rule increasingly required that the sections of the working class that tended to spontaneously become politically active — the better educated, better organised workers — be ideologically tamed into a "loyal opposition". This would be accomplished through using part of the superprofits of monopoly finance capital to bribe these sections with economic, cultural and political concessions. This basic development, Lenin contended, would be a feature of the class structure (and impact accordingly on the dynamics of the class struggle) in every imperialist country.

The leaders of the opportunist trend within the working-class movement would therefore find a stable base for their conscious attempts to keep the class struggle within the bounds of bourgeois legality and bourgeois social-reformism. This form of "mature" opportunism — as distinct from the spontaneous reformism which can be expected in the initial stages of any worker's political development — would emerge on the very foundations of a developed trade-union consciousness and movement in imperialist countries (oftentimes replete with socialist rhetoric!), and would be a permanent feature of imperialism.

Consequently, the split between opportunist and revolutionary trends within the working class of the imperialist countries could not be expected to evaporate, leaving behind some mythical, homogeneous, revolutionary-inclined proletariat. Revolutionary strategy and tactics would therefore have to take this permanent split in the working class of the imperialist countries into account from the beginning. Lenin posed the issue bluntly in his October 1916 article "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism":

… unless a determined and relentless struggle is waged all along the line against [the opportunists'] parties — or groups, trends, etc., it is all the same — there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or for Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement.

Lenin did not confine himself, however, merely to general statements concerning the need to struggle against the opportunist trend within the working-class movement. He attempted to draw out the concrete historical trends that shape the contours of such a struggle and serve as the basis for the elaboration of revolutionary strategy and tactics in the "advanced" capitalist countries in the imperialist epoch.

VI. Marxist tactics in the epoch of imperialism

In his October 1916 article "Imperialism and the Split in for Socialism", Lenin noted (and contrasted) two opposing, but connected, historical tendencies at work in the development of the spontaneous working-class movement. On the one hand, workers, particularly the better-situated workers, organise in economic combinations (trade unions) to fight their employers for better wages and conditions, and to force the bourgeois state to recognise their economic gains through labour legislation. The better-situated workers, precisely because they are better-situated, tend to be the politically active section of the working class, the section out of which spontaneously emerges the advanced workers who are consciously drawn toward revolutionary socialist politics.

On the other hand, the very success of the economic and political struggles for reforms by the better-situated workers compels the bourgeoisie to seek new forms of maintaining its control over the better-situated workers. Meanwhile, the existence of monopoly superprofits and the fact that the workers' combinations can inevitably represent only particular sections of the working class lay the basis for the bourgeoisie to manipulate this contradiction and use concessions to bribe the better-situated workers and thus to foster among them the idea that they can achieve continual improvements in their position simply through struggles for reforms. In this manner, the gains of the better-situated workers can be turned into their opposite, serving not to strengthen the working-class movement as a whole but to provide a basis to split and weaken the movement through the victory of opportunism among the better-situated workers, and thus limit the number of advanced, revolutionary-minded workers who emerge from their ranks.

Lenin attached central importance to this dialectic, targeting in particular those who one-sidely argued that workers' combinations into trade unions would inevitably lead to ever higher forms of struggle and consciousness, while downplaying theability of the bourgeoisie to utilise such combinations (among other factors) to forge a labour aristocracy on a profoundly opportunist basis.

Lenin argued that Marxist tactics required a sober view of the labour aristocracy, its hegemony in the mass organisations of the working-class movement, and the necessity to conduct a vigorous ideological struggle against the opportunist politics of the privileged strata within the working class by championing the interests of the lower, "unprotected", mass of the class. This understanding of the necessity to champion the interests of the non-aristocratic sections of the working class against the opportunist politics of the labour aristocracy did not mean that Lenin advocated that Marxists abandon political work among the better-situated workers. To the contrary, it was a call for Marxists to struggle against the opportunist politics of these workers. This struggle proceeds on two fronts: against the reactionary leaders of the labour aristocracy, against the "labour lieutenants of the capitalist class", whom it is necessary to expose and discredit as conscious agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement, and to replace them with consciously revolutionary leaders; and to destroy the political influence of the labour aristocrats within the ranks of working-class movement, a portion of whom may be won away from opportunist politics in the course of the struggle.

Lenin's understanding of the material basis for the existence of a consolidated opportunist trend within the working-class movement provides a basic orientation for revolutionary Marxist politics in the imperialist countries. It is evident from Lenin's materialist analysis of this phenomenon that the strategic task of preparing the proletariat for socialist revolution in these countries is inconceivable without qualitatively weakening the political influence of the opportunist trend. However, consistent with the materialist method, Lenin's analysis reveals that this is not possible at all times, since the strength of opportunism is directly related to the strength of monopoly capitalism internationally and within any particular imperialist country.

Periods of relative imperialist prosperity will make the task of combating the political influence of opportunism within the working-class movement extremely difficult. However, revolutionary political work in these "slow" periods lays the basis for the quality of advances in periods when the objective conditions create possibilities to seriously contend with the opportunist trend.

Periods of economic and political crisis, which are inevitable, call for open and sharp struggle against opportunism, which becomes even more dangerous and virulent to the working-class movement when its material base is narrowed. The weakening of the material bribe of economic, cultural and political privileges to the better-situatedworkers in such periods increases the importance to the bourgeoisie of the ideological and political services of the opportunist "labour leaders". The loss of privileges or their threatened loss will not necessarily provoke a spontaneous abandonment of opportunism within the upper strata of the working class. On the contrary, it can fuel a powerful reaction within these sections to "blame" the workers in the lower strata or in other countries for the loss or threatened loss of these privileges. Nonetheless, the loss of the relative privileges created out of imperialist prosperity will steadily erode the social base for opportunism, thereby creating more favourable circumstances for workers to grasp the real role of the opportunist "labour leaders" and to better understand their own class interests.

Whether the full potential of the objective conditions will be realised or not depends on the political line, tactics and organisation of the revolutionary Marxists. This is precisely the significance of "Leninism", which opportunists of all hues never tire of dismissing as "voluntarism", completely inappropriate to the imperialist "democracies".

Finally, Lenin warned that Marxists should have no illusions about "quick results" in defeating the domination of the working-class movement in the imperialist countries by the opportunist trend, even in a period of deep social crisis. In these countries, he later wrote, "we see a far greater persistence of the opportunist leaders, of the upper crust of the working class, the labour aristocracy; they offer stronger resistance to the Communist movement. That is why we must be prepared to find it harder for the European and American workers' parties to get rid of this disease than was the case in our country".(18)


[© Resistance Books 1999. Order your hard copy at Resistance Books, Chippendale 2008, Australia. This online edition published 2003.]


1 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Progress Publishers: Moscow 1977), Vol. 37, p. 365

2 Lenin listed the "shortcomings" of Hilferding's analysis of imperialism in his notebooks as "(1) Theoretical error concerning money. (2) Ignores (almost) the division of the world. (3) Ignores the relationship between finance capital and parasitism. (4) Ignores the relationship between imperialism and opportunism" (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 39, p. 202).

3 ibid., pp. 264-65

4 ibid., p. 266

5 Cited in W.A. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Delta: New York, 1962), p. 66.

6 ibid., pp. 78-79

7 V.I. Lenin, Introduction to N. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy (Merlin Press: London 1972), pp. 10-11. The chief weakness of Bukharin's analysis of imperialism was that it defined it as "the policy of conquest of finance capital" (ibid., p. 115).

8 K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (Progress Publishers: Moscow 1977), Vol. 1, pp. 503-04

9 K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 3 (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth 1981), pp. 567-69

10 ibid., pp. 1045-46

11 See below, pp. 100, 120.

12 K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 504

13 K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Sydney, 1998), p. 46

14 K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 450

15 ibid., p. 447

16 ibid., p. 448

17 ibid., p. 447