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   Vol. 67/No. 37           October 27, 2003  
Imperialism is not a ‘policy’
(Reply to a Reader column)
What does the Militant mean by imperialism? In last week’s issue, we replied to this question from reader Ken Berg by drawing on V.I. Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin was the central leader of the Bolshevik party, which led workers and farmers to power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

Lenin answered the arguments of Karl Kautsky, who in his days as a revolutionary had been a leading theoretician of Marxism. As the imperialist powers moved toward World War I, Kautsky deserted Marxism and, using “revolutionary” arguments, became an apologist for the reformist positions of the leaders of the Second International who all lined up behind “their” respective imperialist governments in the war.

Lenin wrote that this was the result of Kautsky’s position that “imperialism must not be regarded as a ‘phase’ or stage of economy, but as a policy, a definite policy ‘preferred’ by finance capital.” But imperialism is not a policy. The sharpening trade competition between the major capitalist powers over markets, the debt strangling the semicolonial nations, the deepening penetration and destruction of their markets by powerful imperialist cartels, and the accelerating drive by the strongest imperialist powers toward war to redivide the world’s resources in their favor—all these are inherent in capitalism. These features cannot be reformed; capitalist rule must be overturned and replaced by the rule of workers and farmers.

Lenin points out how middle-class radicals and pacifists could be eloquent, even strident in their condemnation of the devastating consequences of imperialist exploitation. They passionately implored the more “progressive” capitalists to consider a range of alternatives, from “antimonopoly” measures to “fair trade agreements” to “development schemes” and the use of military force only under the auspices of “world bodies” that were in fact dominated by the imperialist powers.

But, he pointed out, “as long as all this criticism shrank from recognizing the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore, between imperialism and the foundations of capitalism, while it shrank from joining the forces engendered by large-scale capitalism and its development—it remained a ‘pious wish.’”

He added, “The more rapidly trade and capitalism develop, the greater is the concentration of production and capital which gives rise to monopoly. And monopolies have already arisen—precisely out of free competition!”

These features of imperialism are true regardless of the regime in power. In the early 1900s, Lenin wrote, “A comparison of, say, the republican American bourgeoisie with the monarchist Japanese or German bourgeoisie shows that the most pronounced political distinction diminishes to an extreme degree in the epoch of imperialism.”

With this understanding, the first duty of class-conscious workers is to oppose the capitalist rulers of their own country. Lenin made fun of “anti-imperialists” such as “a Japanese [who] condemns the annexation of the Philippines by the Americans” but says nothing about the imperialist nature of Tokyo. Such condemnations of Washington “can be regarded as being sincere and politically honest only if he fights against the annexation of Korea by Japan, and urges freedom for Korea to secede from Japan.”

There are those today who decry “globalization” as a new phenomenon and imply that capitalist governments could take a more “humane” course. Lenin, however, explained how the drive by capital to penetrate every nook and cranny of the world is a feature of capitalism, not a policy option of governments. He describes how the imperialist powers are driven to export capital to the semicolonial countries and deepen their domination of their economies. As a result, “The old social relations become completely revolutionized, the age-long agrarian isolation of ‘nations without history’ is destroyed and they are drawn into the capitalist whirlpool.” In this way, “capitalism itself gradually provides the subjugated with the means and resources for their emancipation.”

In contrast to middle-class critics who argue that the development of industry and technology is intrinsically reactionary, Lenin states that imperialism is “capitalism in transition,” laying the material basis for a superior society, socialism. Industry and banks outgrow the bounds of purely private business enterprises and take on a social character. “When a big enterprise assumes gigantic proportions, and, on the basis of an exact computation of mass data, organizes according to a plan” the supply and transportation of raw materials on a world scale; “when a single center directs all the consecutive stages of processing the material right up to the manufacture of numerous varieties of finished articles; when these products are distributed according to a single plan among tens and hundreds of millions of consumers” as in the oil industry, Lenin writes, “then it becomes evident we have socialization of production.”

Class-conscious workers are not opposed to the globalization and centralization of industry and trade. The question is which class controls it. To end imperialist war and exploitation, working people must organize a revolutionary movement to take political power, expropriate the capitalist class, and reorganize the economy on the basis of the needs of the vast majority, at home and worldwide.
Related article:
Imperialism, highest stage of capitalism  
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