Printed below is an excerpt fromImperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, by V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the Bolshevik party, which led workers and farmers to power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. Lenin wrote this pamphlet in 1916, in the midst of World War I, when London, Paris, Washington, Berlin, and other rival imperialist powers used millions of workers and farmers as cannon fodder in the struggle among themselves to redivide and plunder the world, each ruling class pursuing its own cutthroat interests.
Lenin wrote the pamphlet to give a scientific, class explanation of the nature of imperialism. It was part of politically educating the ranks of the Bolshevik party and other class-conscious workers in order to forge a revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing capitalist rule and leading working people to take political power. Under the pressures of the imperialist war, the majority of the parties of the Socialist International, which had previously taken an antiwar position, each sided with their "own" imperialist bourgeoisie in the name of "national defense" when the shooting started in 1914. Centrist forces used revolutionary language while justifying a chauvinist, class-collaborationist position.
In this pamphlet Lenin polemicizes sharply against Karl Kautsky, a leader of the centrist forces in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who capitulated to the German bourgeoisie at the opening of the war. Kautsky peddled the theory of "super-imperialism," the view that competing imperialist powers were being supplanted by an "internationally united finance capital." This position has much in common with an argument by radical middle-class forces today that nation-states have virtually dissolved and that rival imperialist bourgeoisies have been replaced by something called "transnational capital."
In Imperialism, Lenin argues "that the period of imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution; that social-chauvinism (socialism in words, chauvinism in deeds) is the utter betrayal of socialism, complete desertion to the side of the bourgeoisie; that this split in the working-class movement is bound up with the objective conditions of imperialism."
Copyright © 2002 by Pathfinder Press. Footnotes are in the original. Subheadings and text in brackets are by the Militant.
BY V.I. LENIN
The notorious theory of "ultra-imperialism," invented by Kautsky, is just as reactionary [as the theories of a bourgeois economist cited earlier in the article]. Kautsky: "...Cannot the present imperialist policy be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capitals? Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question."
Kautsky called ultra-imperialism or super-imperialism what [bourgeois economist John] Hobson, thirteen years earlier, described as inter-imperialism. Except for coining a new and clever catchword, replacing one Latin prefix by another, the only progress Kautsky has made in the sphere of "scientific" thought is that he gave out as Marxism what Hobson, in effect, described as the cant of English parsons. After the Anglo-Boer War it was quite natural for this highly honourable caste to exert their main efforts to console the British middle class and the workers who had lost many of their relatives on the battlefields of South Africa and who were obliged to pay higher taxes in order to guarantee still higher profits for the British financiers. And what better consolation could there be than the theory that imperialism is not so bad; that it stands close to inter- (or ultra-) imperialism, which can ensure permanent peace?
No matter what the good intentions of the English parsons, or of sentimental Kautsky, may have been, the only objective, i.e., real, social significance of Kautsky’s "theory" is this: it is a most reactionary method of consoling the masses with hopes of permanent peace being possible under capitalism, by distracting their attention from the sharp antagonisms and acute problems of the present times, and directing it towards illusory prospects of an imaginary "ultra-imperialism" of the future. Deception of the masses--that is all there is in Kautsky’s "Marxist" theory.
Indeed, it is enough to compare well-known and indisputable facts to become convinced of the utter falsity of the prospects which Kautsky tries to conjure up before the German workers (and the workers of all lands). Let us consider India, Indo-China and China. It is known that these three colonial and semi-colonial countries, with a population of six to seven hundred million, are subjected to the exploitation of the finance capital of several imperialist powers: Great Britain, France, Japan, the U.S.A., etc. Let us assume that these imperialist countries form alliances against one another in order to protect or enlarge their possessions, their interests and their spheres of influence in these Asiatic states; these alliances will be "inter-imperialist," or "ultra-imperialist" alliances.
Let us assume that all the imperialist countries conclude an alliance for the "peaceful" division of these parts of Asia; this alliance would be an alliance of "internationally united finance capital." There are actual examples of alliances of this kind in the history of the twentieth century--the attitude of the powers to China, for instance.1 We ask, is it "conceivable," assuming that the capitalist system remains intact--and this is precisely the assumption that Kautsky does make--that such alliances would be more than temporary, that they would eliminate friction, conflicts and struggle in every possible form?...
Imperialist war and peace
Therefore, in the realities of the capitalist system, and not in the banal philistine fantasies of English parsons, or of the German "Marxist," Kautsky, "inter-imperialist" or "ultra-imperialist" alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitablynothing more than a "truce" in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics.
But in order to pacify the workers and reconcile them with the social-chauvinists who have deserted to the side of the bourgeoisie, over-wise Kautsky separatesone link of a single chain from another, separates the present peaceful (and ultra-imperialist, nay, ultra-ultra-imperialist) alliance of all the powers for the "pacification" of China (remember the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion2) from the non-peaceful conflict of tomorrow, which will prepare the ground for another "peaceful" general alliance for the partition, say, of Turkey, on the day after tomorrow,etc., etc. Instead of showing the living connection between periods of imperialist peace and periods of imperialist war, Kautsky presents the workers with a lifeless abstraction in order to reconcile them, to their lifeless leaders....
Kautsky’s obscuring of the deepest contradictions of imperialism, which inevitably boils down to painting imperialism in bright colours, leaves its traces in this writer’s criticism of the political features of imperialism. Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system, the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and an extreme intensification of antagonisms in this field. Particularly intensified become the yoke of national oppression and the striving for annexations, i.e., the violation of national independence (for annexation is nothing but the violation of the right of nations to self-determination). [German centrist Rudolf] Hilferding rightly notes the connection between imperialism and the intensification of national oppression. "In the newly opened-up countries," he writes, "the capital imported into them intensifies antagonisms and excites against the intruders the constantly growing resistance of the peoples who are awakening to national consciousness; this resistance can easily develop into dangerous measures against foreign capital. The old social relations become completely revolutionised, the age-long agrarian isolation of ‘nations without history’ is destroyed and they are drawn into the capitalist whirlpool. Capitalism itself gradually provides the subjugated with the means and resources for their emancipation and they set out to achieve the goal which once seemed highest to the European nations: the creation of a united national state as a means to economic and cultural freedom. This movement for national independence threatens European capital in its most valuable and most promising fields of exploitation, and European capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military forces."
Increased national oppression
To this must be added that it is not only in newly opened-up countries, but also in the old, that imperialism is leading to annexation, to increased national oppression, and, consequently, also to increasing resistance. While objecting to the intensification of political reaction by imperialism, Kautsky leaves in the shade a question that has become particularly urgent, viz., the impossibility of unity with the opportunists in the epoch of imperialism. While objecting to annexations, he presents his objections in a form that is most acceptable and least offensive to the opportunists. He addresses himself to a German audience, yet he obscures the most topical and important point, for instance, the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany.
In order to appraise this "mental aberration" of Kautsky’s I shall take the following example. Let us suppose that a Japanese condemns the annexation of the Philippines by the Americans. The question is: will many believe that he does so because he has a horror of annexations as such, and not because he himself has a desire to annex the Philippines? And shall we not be constrained to admit that the "fight" the Japanese is waging against annexations 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?
Kautsky’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, as well as his economic and political critique of imperialism, are permeated through and through with a spirit, absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism, of obscuring and glossing over the fundamental contradictions of imperialism and with a striving to preserve at all costs the crumbling unity with opportunism in the European working-class movement.
1 Lenin has in mind the so-called Final Protocol of September 7, 1901, signed by the imperialist powers (Britain, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, the U.S.A.) and China as a result of the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901. Foreign capital obtained new opportunities for exploiting and plundering China.
2 The Boxer (more precisely I Ho T’uan)Rebellion--a popular anti-imperialist uprising in China in 1899–1901 organised by the I Ho Ch’üan (Righteous Harmony Fists) society, which later became known as the I Ho T’uan (Righteous Harmony Bands). It was ruthlessly crushed by an expeditionary corps of the imperialist powers under the command of the German General Waldersee, with the German, Japanese, British, American and Russian imperialists taking part. China was forced to sign the Final Protocol which turned her into a semi-colony of foreign imperialism.