Lenin and Bukharin
 on imperialism

It is almost one hundred years since the publication of V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy,2 written in the midst of the carnage of World War I. Imperialism was written in the first half of 1916 and published in mid-1917; Imperialism and World Economy was not published until several months later, but it was substantially written in 1915 and very likely influenced Lenin’s own thinking, since he read the book in manuscript and wrote an introduction for it in December 1915 supporting its main analysis. Both books, and especially Lenin’s, have had a major influence on the revolutionary left. A century after their first appearance, it is worth evaluating their legacy.

Both Lenin and Bukharin were leading figures in the militant Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The Bolsheviks were one of a very small number of socialist groups in Europe to denounce the war as an imperialist conflict and to refuse to support their own government. On one side of the war were Britain, France, and Russia, on the other Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In the decade leading up to the war, the Second International (an association of the world’s leading socialist parties), had passed numerous resolutions pledging to oppose war between the big powers if and when it broke out. But when war was finally declared in August 1914, socialists in the German parliament overwhelmingly voted for war credits, arguing that they had to defend civilization against the despotism of the Russian tsar. French socialists responded by saying they had to defend revolutionary France against Prussian militarism. The British Labour Party supported Britain’s entry into the war, and so on down the line. Lenin was so surprised by this betrayal, particularly of the German Social Democratic Party, that he initially refused to believe that it was true. His comrade Gregory Zinoviev recounted his reaction a few years later:

When the war broke out we were living in a god-forsaken little mountain village in Galicia. I remember having had a bet with him. I said “You will see, the German Social Democrats will not dare vote against the war, but will abstain in the vote on the war credits.” Comrade Lenin replied: “No, they are not such scoundrels as all that. They will not, of course, fight the war, but they will, to ease their conscience, vote against the credits lest the working class rise up against them.” In this case Lenin was wrong, and so was I. Neither of us had taken the full measure of the flunkeyism of the social patriots. The European Social Democrats proved complete bankrupts. They all voted for the war credits. When the first number of the Vörwarts, the organ of the German Social Democrats, arrived with the news that they had voted the war credits, Lenin at first refused to believe. “It cannot be,” he said, “it must be a forged number. Those scoundrels, the German bourgeoisie, have specially published such a number of the Vörwarts in order to compel us also to go against the International.” Alas, it was not so. It turned out that the social patriots really had voted the war credits. When Lenin saw it, his first word was: “The Second International is dead.”3

Both works by Lenin and Bukharin attempted to explain how the war was rooted in profound economic changes, but they were also intervening in the sharp political debate that had torn apart the international socialist movement when the war began. Both of them argued that the war was an imperialist conflict in which all sides were trying to grab more territory and extend their power and influence, or at the very least hang on to territories to which they had no right in the first place. People who called themselves “socialists” but who nevertheless found excuses to support their own governments had betrayed the working class and the socialist movement. Those who privately opposed the war but refused to make their opposition public were just as bad. Lenin himself advocated the sharpest opposition to the war, arguing that socialists should not just refuse to support their own ruling classes, but should openly call for their defeat.

Similarly, Lenin supported the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. National independence could not bring about genuine liberation without the abolition of class divisions and the overthrow of capitalism, but the fight for independence would weaken imperialism, and support for that fight by workers in the oppressing nation would cut against national chauvinism and make possible the emergence of a genuinely internationalist socialist movement.4

Lenin’s main goal in Imperialism was to show how the colonial expansion of the major world powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—which led to interimperial rivalry and eventually war—was rooted in profound changes in the nature of capitalism during the same period. That is why he called imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century a stage of capitalism. Lenin’s claim has confused some of his readers, so it is worth pointing out that he was not saying that there was no imperialism before the late nineteenth century. Rather, he was pointing out that the nature of imperialism had changed.

Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism. But “general” arguments about imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background the fundamental difference of social-economic systems, inevitably degenerate into absolutely empty banalities, or into grandiloquent comparisons like “Greater Rome and Greater Britain.” Even the capitalist colonial policy of capitalism in its previous stages is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital. (Ch. VI)

Another source of confusion has been the description of imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism.” Countless commentators have attributed to Lenin the idea that early twentieth century capitalism was the final form that capitalism would take, and no further development was possible. But Lenin says no such thing. In fact a more accurate translation of his title is Imperialism: The Latest Stage of Capitalism, and the text itself repeatedly speaks of “the latest stage of capitalism,”5 not its final stage. The title was probably a deliberate echo of an important book by the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital, the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development, which was an important influence on Lenin’s views.6

What Lenin was attempting to explain was the extremely virulent form of imperialism that began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, resulting in the scramble for Africa from the 1880s, and the increasing tensions between the major powers. In calling it a stage of capitalism, Lenin was saying that the new imperialism could not be satisfactorily explained in ideological or political terms, and that it was fundamentally an economic phenomenon. 

According to Lenin, an adequate definition of modern imperialism needs to embrace “five essential features” (Ch. VII):

  1. The concentration of production and capital developed to such a high stage that it 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, which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities. 
  4. The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves. 
  5. The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed.

Lenin’s list has to be examined critically because, in retrospect, some of the features he listed are more fundamental than others. For example, the integration of industrial and banking capital was certainly an important aspect of German capitalism in the early twentieth century, but far less developed in countries such as Britain. Nor had all the major capitalist powers become net exporters of capital—more investment was still flowing into the United States and Japan when Lenin was writing, for example, than was going out.7 Nevertheless, Lenin was correct to point out the importance of the banking industry and the financial sector, which has continued to grow in influence over the past century. And he makes clear that the most important feature of imperialism is the first one that he listed. “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism,” he wrote, “we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” So Lenin’s underlying argument was that the rivalries and wars between capitalist powers were inherent in one of capitalism’s basic features: the tendency, analyzed by Marx, for capital to become more centralized and concentrated—larger and larger units of production controlled, because of mergers and acquisitions, by fewer and fewer capitalists.8 By the end of the nineteenth century this process was already well underway, allowing dominant capitalist firms to acquire monopoly or near monopoly status in particular sectors of their national economies.

Lenin described his pamphlet as a “popular outline,” and it is really a sketch rather than a finished theoretical study. Bukharin attempted to explain the underlying dynamic of imperialism more systematically. In Imperialism and World Economy, Bukharin analyzes imperialism as the result of two contradictory tendencies in modern capitalism. The first is the concentration and centralization of capital discussed by Lenin. As this process develops, however, the state comes to play an increasingly active role in managing the economy, and Bukharin argued that there is a tendency for capital and the state to become more and more closely integrated. The end point of this process is for state and capital to merge together and form what he called “state capitalist trusts” (Ch. X).

Second, as the first process unfolds, there is a simultaneous tendency for production, trade, and investment to break out of national boundaries and to become organized on a global scale. As a consequence of this second process, according to Bukharin, there is a tendency for economic competition between capitals to take on the form of geopolitical competition—in other words, for economic competition to be expressed in terms of political and military rivalries between states for territory, influence, and power. This is the basis of modern imperialism.

Bukharin summarizes his view as follows:

There is here a growing discord between the basis of social economy which has become world-wide and the peculiar class structure of society, a structure where the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) itself is split into “national” groups with contradictory economic interests, groups which, being opposed to the world proletariat, are competing among themselves for the division of the surplus value created on a world scale. Production is of a social nature; international division of labor turns the private “national” economies into parts of a gigantic all-embracing labor process, which extends over almost the whole of humanity. Acquisition, however, assumes the character of “national” (state) acquisition where the beneficiaries are huge state companies of the bourgeoisie of finance capital. The development of productive forces moves within the narrow limits of state boundaries while it has already outgrown those limits. Under such conditions there inevitably arises a conflict, which, given the existence of capitalism, is settled through extending the state frontiers in bloody struggles, a settlement which holds the prospect of new and more grandiose conflicts. (Ch. VIII)

Bukharin sometimes described the tendency towards the creation of state-capitalist trusts as more complete than it really was, and he wrongly believed that such trusts would only be affected by outside crises, ignoring the internal contradictions that continued to exist in all capitalist economies. On this score, Bukharin needs to be modified by Lenin, who noted: “The monopoly created in certain branches of industry increases and intensifies the anarchy inherent in capitalist production as a whole.” (Ch. I) Later Lenin writes: “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 antagonisms, frictions and conflicts.” (Ch. VII)

There is one other important element in this theory. Capitalism tends to create a single world economy, but development does not take place uniformly either within individual states or in the system as a whole. Instead, it is characterized—in Trotsky’s famous phrase—by combined and uneven development. Economic, military, and political power tends to be concentrated in a handful of states, which therefore dominate the rest of the world. But, as Lenin noted, “Finance capital and the trusts do not diminish but increase the differences in the rate of growth of the various parts of the world economy.” (Ch. VII) In certain circumstances it is possible for relatively backward states to develop rapidly by importing advanced technologies and to catch up with, or even overtake, their rivals. 

This is crucial, because it shows that the division of power between the advanced states and the rest of the world isn’t static. Even if stability in international relations were established for a period of time, it would eventually be undermined as the result of economic changes. So, for instance, the attempt at the end of World War I to prevent the outbreak of further wars by creating the League of Nations was a complete failure.

The main target of many of Lenin’s and Bukharin’s arguments was Karl Kautsky, for many years the leading theoretician of the German SPD. At the start of the war, Kautsky privately advocated abstaining on the war credits vote in the German Reichstag, but refused to publicly criticize the SPD’s vote for the war and argued that democratic Germany was fighting a defensive war against autocratic Tsarist Russia. Almost a year into the war, when Germany’s expansionist aims became undeniable, Kautsky did finally publicly oppose it, but he maintained that the war was not rooted in capitalism and that from the point of view of the capitalist system, war had become irrational precisely because the world economy was becoming integrated on an international level. As a consequence, Kautsky argued, “the result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race.”9 Kautsky called this anticipated phase of capitalist development “ultra-imperialism,” and he saw the formation of the League of Nations at the end of the war as part of the shift to ultra-imperialism and a more peaceful world order.

But of course the League of Nations—which Lenin described as “an alliance of robbers, each trying to snatch something from the others”10—was never able to paper over the sharp differences between the major imperialist powers, and within a generation the world was engulfed in an even more barbaric war. Kautsky’s vision of a relatively peaceful capitalism was revealed as an illusion. By contrast, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory seems to do a remarkably good job of explaining the development of capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century, and why the major capitalist powers plunged the globe into two catastrophic and barbaric world wars.

Imperialism since Lenin and Bukharin
But does Lenin and Bukharin’s approach help us to understand the modern world? After World War II, the structure of global politics changed dramatically. Before the war, the world was economically and politically multipolar. After the war it remained economically multipolar but became politically bipolar, with the formation of two rival global military alliances, one dominated by the United States, the other by the Soviet Union. While nominally socialist, the USSR was by this time ruled by a bureaucratic elite that exploited the majority of the population in order to compete with the West for power and influence. The stage was set for the Cold War. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took over most of Eastern Europe (initially with the agreement of their wartime Western allies) and installed regimes modeled on its own, with one-party states that controlled in each case most of the economy. While state and capital never fully merged in most of the capitalist world, they did so in the Soviet bloc for several decades.11

It would be hard to deny that this was a period of intense interimperialist rivalry. Wars continued on the periphery resulting in millions of deaths, and the two superpowers engaged in a massive arms race, but there was no war between the USA and the USSR, although they came extremely close at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and on several other occasions.12 But with the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, the structure of the global system changed again.

The end of the Cold War took place at the same time as the decisive US victory in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and was supposed to usher in a “new world order” of international stability, in which military conflict would decline, and we would all receive the benefits of a massive “peace dividend.” But despite a mood of triumphalism among US imperial strategists and propagandists in the early 1990s, the peace dividend never materialized because the US ruling class found itself almost immediately faced with new challenges.

For the United States, one positive consequence of the Cold War was that it gave Washington political dominance over the major capitalist countries in Europe and Asia, since they depended on the US military for their security. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Western Europe’s military dependency on the US decreased at the same time as its economic and political integration accelerated. US planners viewed this as a potential medium-term threat to continued American global dominance. In the mid-1990s, some European countries began floating the idea of a European Defense Force that could act independently of the US-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had been formed to oppose the USSR and now seemed to have little reason for its existence. US policy makers were also concerned about the possibility of a German-Russian strategic alliance, as well as the emergence of China as a major economic and military power that might begin to replace the US as the dominant power in Asia.

The Clinton administration responded to these challenges both economically and militarily. It pushed through policies of economic globalization designed to bind the other major powers into relations of dependency on the US in the World Trade Organization. Simultaneously it followed a policy of strengthening and expanding NATO in order to maintain the US presence in Europe and weaken Russia. This culminated with military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, intended to maintain European dependence on US armed power.

In the 1990s, US strategists from both sides of the political aisle began to look for ways in which Washington could use its enormous military power to keep its main rivals in check. On the right, the most influential group was a neoconservative think-tank named the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), several of whose members became prominent figures in the George W. Bush administration. In a report issued in September 2000, PNAC outlines the key strategic goal of “maintaining global US pre-eminence . . . and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.” Key to achieving this goal, according to the report, was seizing control of the Persian Gulf region. “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”13 Regime change in Iraq would, it was assumed, not only give the United States control over the second largest oil reserves in the world but also significant leverage over its main rivals, particularly Europe and China, both highly dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

This was not just the fantasy of neoconservative extremists. By the end of the 1990s, there was bipartisan consensus that Saddam’s government needed to be removed, and it had become official US policy. Shortly after the PNAC report of September 2000, the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report on the geopolitics of energy that pointed to a “fundamental contradiction” between the need to modernize Iraq’s oil infrastructure in order to increase production to meet growing world energy demand and continued sanctions.14 But if the sanctions were lifted while the Iraqi regime remained in power, then the chief beneficiaries would be France and Russia, which had negotiated major oil concessions with Saddam. 

Underlying this immediate concern were continuing imperial rivalries with other major powers, driven by the same intersecting logics of economic and military competition analyzed by Lenin and Bukharin in different geopolitical circumstances ninety years earlier. None of the other powers could threaten Washington’s hegemony on a global level, but they could erode US dominance in specific areas. The long-term goal of US imperialism was to maintain its control of Middle East oil—first established after World War II—by shoring up friendly governments in the area no matter what their records might be on human rights, and by containing and when possible replacing unfriendly ones. It was in fact the Democrat Jimmy Carter who articulated this most clearly in his January 1980 State of the Union address: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”15 The so-called “Carter Doctrine” is a reminder that control over what a 1945 State Department memorandum to President Harry Truman had described as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,”16 was always a bipartisan project.

When the Bush administration came to office in 2001, however, the goal of regime change in Iraq was not immediately achievable, since there was insufficient domestic support for an outright invasion. The PNAC report had bluntly noted in the previous year that what was needed to implement such a policy was “some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.”17 The attacks of 9/11 thus provided the Bush administration with exactly the opportunity it needed to pursue an agenda that it had already decided on. As Gilbert Achcar puts it: “September 11, 2001 came as a terrific windfall for the Bush administration. . . . The spectacular blow struck by Islamic fundamentalists, former US allies who had become its sworn enemies, created such a huge political trauma in the United States that the Bush administration thought it was possible at last, for the first time, to break once and for all with the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and return to the unbridled military interventionism of the first Cold War decades.”18

The important point to note is that while there were tactical differences between the administration and some other sections of the political establishment about how best to pursue the agenda, there was near unanimity on the goal itself. The shift to a much more aggressive and unilateralist foreign policy was not the result of a neoconservative coup but a consequence of radically new circumstances providing US imperialism with the opportunity to solve its problems in a new way.

Some in the Bush administration wanted to attack Iraq immediately, but for political reasons it was decided that an invasion of Afghanistan was politically more feasible and could be a stepping stone towards the goal of removing Saddam Hussein. It had the additional benefit of allowing Washington to set up a string of military bases in Central Asia, thus increasing its control over Caspian oil and gas, and giving it greater leverage against both Russia and China.

Once the operation in Afghanistan seemed to have been completed, the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq, with support from nearly all the leading figures in the Democratic Party. The conflicts with France, Germany, Russia, and China in the buildup to the invasion revealed the key rivalries between the major powers that were at the root of US policy. The war on Iraq was supposed to assert US dominance not just over the Middle East but over these economic and military rivals too. The goal was to remove a regime hostile to US interests, to gain control over Iraqi oil, thereby increasing US leverage over Europe and China, and to use Iraq as a base to reshape the entire Middle East along lines congenial to Washington.

In an interview on BBC television, General Jay Garner, former head of the Iraq occupation authority, described Washington’s long-term vision of Iraq as a political and military base, modeled on America’s control of the Pacific in the early twentieth century. 

We used the Philippines. And the Philippines, for the lack of a better term, it was in essence a coaling station for the navy. And it allowed the US navy to maintain presence in the Pacific. They maintained great presence in the Pacific. 

I think . . . we should look right now at Iraq as our coaling station in the Middle East, where we have some presence there and it gives a settling effect there, and it also gives us a strategic advantage there, and I think we ought to just accept that and take that for a period of time, as long as the Iraqi people are willing to allow us to be guests in their country.19

This interview reveals some of the continuities of current policy with the long history of US imperialism. But the world that US policy has brought about over the past few decades has created new problems for US imperialism. The occupation of Iraq first bogged down the US militarily while at the same time removing Iran’s biggest rival in the region, leading in turn to an intensification of Washington’s confrontation with Tehran.

Even more importantly, while Washington has been largely successful in reintegrating the countries of Western Europe into a US-dominated international framework since the end of the Cold War, the same is not true for Russia (which is still a major military power, with thousands of nuclear missiles) or China (which is a rising economic and military power). Indeed US policy makers are obsessed by the rise of China and how they can prevent it from becoming a major challenger to US power on a regional or even a global level. The US used 9/11 to set up military bases in central Asia. In response, Russia and China formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in an effort to maneuver the United States out of the region. They were successful in pushing it out of Uzbekistan, with Russia and China supporting the Uzbek regime. That is an illustration of a process unfolding on a much larger scale in which the major centers of economic and military power in the world continue to maneuver against each other for advantage. None of them are prepared to stand out against the United States directly because the costs are too high, but the process illustrates the fragmentation and instability of the global system.

The shift to a much more aggressive and unilateralist foreign policy by the Bush administration following 9/11 was not the result of neoconservatives hijacking the government,20 but a consequence of radically new circumstances providing US imperialism with the opportunity to solve its problems in a new way. For that reason, little changed when Barack Obama replaced Bush as president, as the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out in 2011:

For those with eyes to see, the daylight between the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been shrinking ever since the current president took the oath of office. But last week made it official: When the story of America’s post-9/11 wars is written, historians will be obliged to assess the two administrations together, and pass judgment on the Bush-Obama era.21

This is not exactly what most of Obama’s supporters had in mind when they voted for him in 2008, but two-and-a-half years later, the record speaks for itself. Troops were eventually withdrawn from Iraq in accordance with a plan begun under Bush, but the war in Afghanistan was expanded, with regular attacks across the border into neighboring Pakistan and high numbers of civilian deaths, a secret bombing campaign in Yemen exposed by Wikileaks, an open bombing campaign against Libya, and saber rattling against Iran. Obama also announced a “pivot to Asia” to challenge China’s growing power and greatly increased the US military presence in Africa. US imperialism did not end when George Bush left office.

These developments confirmed Lenin’s observation that imperialism is not simply a policy, but something built into the fabric of developed capitalism, as economic competition gives rise to geopolitical competition and military intervention. The form of that competition can change over time, but so long as capitalism exists, so will imperialism. That is why—apart from minor differences—both major political parties in the United States pursue the same foreign policy agenda.

Critics on the left
I have argued that despite changes in the structure of capitalism in the last one hundred years, Lenin’s and Bukharin’s theories retain their relevance and remain an essential starting point for analyzing contemporary imperialism, but many on the left reject this view. The Canadian Marxist David McNally acknowledges the strengths of the analyses put forward by Lenin and Bukharin, but he goes on to argue “there were real limits to these theories—limits which become especially disenabling today.”22 What are these limits? McNally mentions three.

First, according to McNally Lenin believed “that colonialism pivoted on the export to the colonies of excess capital—capital which could find no profitable outlet at home. Yet the very tables he produced in his booklet indicated instead that the bulk of exported capital went from one rich capitalist nation to another—as it continues to do today.”23 McNally is certainly right to point out that most foreign investment by advanced capitalist economies goes to other developed economies, but Lenin does not deny this, and his theory does not depend on rejecting this claim. What is essential to his view is that control of the territory, resources, and markets of the less developed world plays a vital role in competition with other developed capitalisms, not that investments in such countries makes up the bulk of exported capital.

Second, McNally criticizes Bukharin for taking “an historically specific period of integration of capital with the nation-state in the early twentieth century and inflat[ing] it into an inherent tendency of capitalist development, arguing that capital and the state fuse over time. Yet as recent waves of privatization and deregulation indicate, the relationship between state and capital is much more fluid and changeable.” Again, McNally’s descriptive point is correct—Bukharin’s account of the relation between state and capital is obviously too simple, even though it does describe a trend that remained dominant for the middle as well as the early part of the century. In fact, as we have noted, Bukharin himself in Imperialism and World Economy, pointed to the contradictory tendencies that modern capitalism exhibits:

The development of world capitalism leads, on the one hand, to an internationalisation of the economic life and, on the other, to the leveling of economic differences, and to an infinitely greater degree, the same process of economic development intensifies the tendency to “nationalise” capitalist interests, to form narrow “national” groups armed to the teeth and ready to hurl themselves at one another any moment. (Ch. VIII)

The Marxist writer Chris Harman developed this point in the 1970s:

The trend is towards state capitalism, towards the complete merger of individual capitals in each country with the national state. But the trend is also to the internationalisation of production: the most modern techniques are developed on an international scale; the resources for participation in key industries like chemicals, aerospace, computers, and, increasingly, motors can be obtained by pooling the resources of more than one country.

These two trends—towards state capitalism and towards internationalisation of production—are both complementary and contradictory…

This means that even in the advanced capitalist countries, crosscutting the “state capitalist” trend is another trend – towards dependence on firms, which see their interests as differing from the interests of the national capital. Of course, they have a home base. Of course, they depend upon a national state to bail them out when it comes to the crunch. But that is not the same as saying that they will willingly subordinate themselves to the national state.24

Since Harman wrote this almost forty years ago, direct state ownership and state planning have greatly declined in most major capitalist countries.25 Nevertheless, it is not true (as is sometimes argued) that most giant corporations have become delinked from specific nation states,26 even if the relationship between state and capital is often characterized by sharp tensions.27 It is this connection between capitalist enterprises and specific national states that is the crucial premise of Bukharin’s (and Lenin’s) arguments. We need to update Bukharin to take account of the new and highly complex ways in which state and capital are intertwined, but it is the fact that they are intertwined that ultimately matters most.

Finally, according to McNally, “perhaps the biggest flaw in these theories of imperialism is that they saw territorial occupation by the major powers as a necessary feature of global capitalism.” Certainly direct occupation and the acquisition of colonies was the way in which imperialism expressed itself in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, and Lenin and Bukharin attempt to explain why. But the hallmark of imperialism is not occupation but control, and what the main capitalist powers learned after World War II was that such control could generally be exercised more effectively using economic coercion, with military power and physical occupations generally held in reserve to deal with temporary emergencies.28 The move from direct colonial occupations to indirect or neocolonialism is certainly of major historical importance, but the underlying dynamic described by Lenin and Bukharin, in which economic competition gives rise to diplomatic, geopolitical, and military maneuvering and confrontation between capitalist states, can explain both imperialism with colonies and imperialism without them.29

The changes that have taken place in the world economy over the past century require anyone who wants to defend the theories of Lenin and Bukharin to develop and elaborate their insights in new ways. But the most influential recent theories of imperialism have tended to reject their central idea of interimperialist conflicts. For example, in their briefly influential book Empire,30 Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt downplayed the importance of nation states and described a world in which imperial domination was maintained by a much more diffuse network of multinational corporations and international institutions. 

According to Negri and Hardt, rivalries between the major capitalist states on the one hand, and the huge and systematic differences in economic development and living standards between different parts of the world on the other, are no longer the main features of the world economy.  Instead, over the past few decades, old-style imperialism has been replaced by Empire—a transnational, network capitalism in which the dominant economic and political relationships are no longer clustered around centers of national capitalist power, but have broken down the national organization of capitalism into relations that operate transnationally. This leads them to conclude, “no nation-state can today form the center of an imperialist project.”31 Later they write, “The history of imperialist, inter-imperialist, and anti-imperialist wars is over. The end of that history has ushered in the reign of peace. Or really, we have entered the era of minor and internal conflicts.”32

The problem for this view is that it didn’t fit the world in the 1990s, let alone the world after September 11, 2001. Even under Clinton, the United States had openly begun to use its military power to maintain its economic primacy—that’s what the war in Kosovo was largely about. Then, little more than a year after Empire was published in 2000, Washington launched a new and more aggressive phase of imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and then Iraq following the 9/11 attacks. Put simply, George W. Bush didn’t use US military power in the interests of some anonymous, impersonal transnational network, he used it in the interests of US capitalism. Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq were assertions of US national power. 

Negri and Hardt have various ways of trying to explain what happened after 9/11. One is to claim that Bush is a throwback who represented the past. A more sophisticated variant of this explanation is the claim that Bush represented the interests of backward-looking national capital, not the interests of transnational corporations. But this really doesn’t wash. The Bush administration pursued neoliberal economic and trade policies every bit as aggressively as Clinton did and worked hand in glove with the biggest transnational companies. Moreover, as we have seen, Obama essentially continued Bush’s policies.

A second view of modern imperialism, defended in greatest detail by Canadian Marxists Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch in their book The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire,33 is now more influential on the left. According to this alternative, the world is dominated by US super-imperialism. There are no longer rival centers of capitalist power competing for global or regional hegemony. The resources of the United States are so much greater than any potential competitors that other states are effectively subordinated to Washington’s dictates. 

On this theory, classical imperialism has been replaced not by the transnational network power of Negri and Hardt’s Empire, but by the overwhelming dominance of one national center of capitalist power. Gindin and Pantich argue that since World War II the American empire has integrated and subordinated the entire advanced capitalist world. They emphasize the role of international institutions like the IMF, G-8, NATO, and so on, as means through which the United States asserts its power over the other major capitalist countries.

Now it is obviously true that the United States has considerably more power than other capitalist states in terms of its military strength, the size of its economy, and its financial clout; and it certainly uses a variety of international institutions to maintain its dominance. But the key part of Gindin and Panitch’s thesis is that this means that the era of interimperialist rivalry is over. Yet while Washington has been largely successful in integrating the countries of Western Europe into a US-dominated international framework, we have already noted that the same is not true for Russia or China, and that US policy makers are determined to prevent China from becoming a major challenger to its power on a regional, or even a global, level. Gindin and Panitch’s response to this is that the Chinese challenge is overstated: “China may perhaps emerge eventually as a pole of interimperial power, but it will obviously remain very far from reaching such a status for a good many decades.”34

This analysis, however, may significantly underestimate the rapidity of the changes that are taking place in the global balance of power. This is what lay behind the “pivot to Asia” initiated by Obama during his second term.35 In May 2014, The New York Times reported on China’s increasingly aggressive response to Washington’s attempt to contain it:

All around Asia, China is pushing and probing at America’s alliances, trying to loosen the bonds that have kept the countries close to Washington and allowed the United States to be the pre-eminent power in the region since World War II.

In just the past week, China traded punches with Vietnam and Japan. A Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat on Monday near a Chinese deep-water oilrig that was placed in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. That confrontation followed a close encounter last Saturday in which two pairs of Chinese fighter jets flew close to Japanese surveillance and electronic intelligence planes, in disputed airspace claimed by both countries.36

Gindin and Panitch seem to downplay the significance of such conflicts because they rely on a narrow conception of what constitutes interimperial rivalries. In effect, their view is that unless there is a fairly imminent trajectory towards war, such rivalries do not exist. But there can be rivalry between, say, China and the United States, or the United States and France, without there being any immediate threat of war. When Lenin and Bukharin were writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, imperialist rivalries did lead to war between major powers for one simple reason—there were a number of competing states that were relatively evenly matched in military terms. Today, of course, that is no longer the case. The United States spends almost as much on its military budget as the rest of the world combined, so the other major powers have a strong incentive to avoid any direct military confrontation.

But interimperialist rivalries can take other forms. The contemporary world is characterized by sharp economic competition that shapes the pattern of trade negotiations between the leading centers of capital accumulation and there are also very important kinds of geopolitical rivalry. As we have noted, for example, Russia and China have formed a bloc to counter the US presence in central Asia. Neither country is willing to confront Washington directly, because the costs would be much too high, but the biggest economies nevertheless maneuver to gain economic and trade advantages, they look for ways to strengthen their political clout and weaken that of their competitors, and they look for ways to widen their areas of influence.

Lenin and Bukharin would no doubt recognize this as interimperialist rivalry, even if war between the major powers were not a likely immediate prospect. Indeed, even in their own day it took many years for such a war to break out, proceeded by a series of smaller wars, including the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), and the Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913). What has not changed is that the most powerful states will use their military strength in whatever ways they can to pursue their own interests, typically by intervening militarily in weaker countries, or at least threatening to intervene. Russia’s sudden invasion and annexation of Crimea in early 2014, detaching it from Ukraine, is a dramatic case in point.37

The US ruling class is currently playing for very high stakes, trying to maintain its dominant global position in a world in which the distribution of economic power is changing to its disadvantage. That produces a highly unstable and potentially very dangerous situation. Other leading powers may not be prepared to challenge the United States directly at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be prepared to do so in the future. Unless we get rid of capitalism, the prospect of future military confrontations on a much larger scale remains. Even without major military confrontations between powers, it is impossible to deny the devastating effect of regional wars—such as those raging currently in the Middle East, for example—in which great powers, and in particular the United States and its allies, have played an outsize role.

Moreover, even if a war between the United States and any of its major rivals is unlikely in the immediate future, competition between the big powers is the principal reason why it has been impossible to negotiate a solution to the ongoing climate crisis, which threatens to turn into a catastrophe before the end of the century.38 When Rosa Luxemburg warned that the choice for humanity is between socialism and barbarism, she had in mind the horrors of World War I.39 A century later, we know that barbarism can take more than one form. 

It is obviously true that one cannot understand the complexities of contemporary geopolitics and imperialism simply by reading Lenin and Bukharin. But it is equally true that if one ignores their key insights, it is not possible to make much sense of the otherwise bewildering set of events that is currently being played out on the international chessboard and, just as importantly, to come up with a coherent political strategy to oppose militarism, war, environmental destruction, and all the other horrors that capitalism creates. The framework Lenin and Bukharin developed a hundred years ago, taken as a methodology and not as a set of dogmas, retains its relevance for activists today.


  1. This article is based on the introduction to a new edition of Lenin’s Imperialism and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.
  2. The full text of both works can also be found at the Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm, https://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial/index.htm 
  3. “Lenin: Speech to the Petrograd Soviet by Gregory Zinoviev Celebrating Lenin’s Recovery from Wounds Received in the Attempt Made on his Life on August 30, 1918,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1918/lenin/index.htm. The quotation is from the section titled “The Metal Workers Meeting.” Trotsky repeats this story in Chapter 18 of his autobiography, My Life, but incorrectly locates Lenin in Switzerland: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch18.htm.
  4. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/index.htm. Lenin’s views are summarized in Tom Lewis, “Marxism and nationalism,” ISR 13, August–September 2000 (http://isreview.org/issues/13/marxism_nationalism_part1.shtml) and ISR 14, October–November 2000 (http://isreview.org/issues/14/marxism_nationalism_part2.shtml).
  5. See Chapters IV, VI, and VII.
  6. Notes from the Editors, Monthly Review, Vol. 55, No. 8, January 2004,  http://monthlyreview.org/2004/01/01/january-2004-volume-55-number-8. Lenin was also influenced by the British liberal economist J.A. Hobson’s book Imperialism: A Study, first published in 1902. However, Hobson viewed imperialism as beneficial only to certain sectors of business (such as the arms industry), not rooted in the nature of capitalism itself.
  7. Michael Kidron, “Imperialism–Highest Stage but One,” International Socialism (1st series), No. 9, Summer 1962,  http://marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1962/xx/imperial.htm.
  8. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 25, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm
  9. “Ultra-imperialism,” Die Neue Zeit, September 1914, http://marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1914/09/ultra-imp.htm.
  10. “Speech Delivered At A Conference Of Chairmen Of Uyezd, Volost And Village Executive Committees Of Moscow Gubernia,” October 15, 1920. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/oct/15b.htm.
  11. For a brief account of this period and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc see Phil Gasper, “The legacy of Stalinism,” International Socialist Review 69, January 2010. http://isreview.org/issue/69/legacy-stalinism.
  12. Patricia Lewis, Heather Williams, Benoît Pelopidas and Sasan Aghlani, “Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy,” Chatham House Report, April 2014. http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/199200 
  13. Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century (September 2000). PNAC disbanded in 2006 and its website no longer exists, but a copy of the report is available at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info...
  14. CSIS Panel Report, The Geopolitics of Energy into the 21st Century (Washington: CSIS, 2000), “Executive Summary,” xiv.
  15. The State of the Union Address Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress, January 23, 1980. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=33079.
  16. Report by the Coordinating Committee of the Department of State, “Draft Memorandum to President Truman,” Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, The Near East and Africa, Vol. 8, 1945, 45.
  17. Rebuilding America’s Defenses.
  18. “U.S. Imperial Strategy in the Middle East,” Monthly Review Vol. 55, No. 9, February 2004,  https://monthlyreview.org/2004/02/01/u-s-imperial-strategy-in-the-middle-east.
  19. Interview on BBC Newsnight, broadcast March 19, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/3552737.stm.
  20. The “hijacking” claim was common among American liberals at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example in Robert Kuttner’s Boston Globe op-ed “Neo-cons have hijacked US foreign policy,” Boston Globe, September 10, 2003, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/10/neo_cons_have_hijacked_us_foreign_policy/. It is also worth noting that many neoconservatives were originally Cold War Democrats. As two leading neocons pointed out at the time, “Most, like former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, simply had been hawkish Democrats who became disenchanted with their party as it drifted further left in the 1970s. Many neocons, such as Richard Perle, originally rallied around Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a Democratic senator who led the opposition to the Nixon-Ford policy of détente with the Soviet Union.” Max Boot and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Think again: Neocons,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2004, http://www.cfr.org/united-states/think-again-neocons/p7592.
  21. “Whose Foreign Policy Is It?” New York Times, May 8, 2011,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/opinion/09douthat.html.
  22. David McNally, “Understanding imperialism: Old and new dominion,” Against the Current 117, July–August 2005, http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/255. McNally also briefly discusses the rather different views about imperialism developed by Rosa Luxemburg during the same time. I agree with McNally’s criticisms of Luxemburg. 
  23. See the table showing “Distribution (Approximate) of Foreign Capital in Different Parts of the Globe (circa 1910)” in Chapter IV, which indicates that over two-thirds of the combined foreign investment of Britain, France, and Germany was in Europe and America.
  24. Chris Harman, “Better a Valid Insight Than a Wrong Theory,” International Socialism (1st series), No.100, July 1977, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/harman/1977/07/insight.htm.
  25. China, which has developed its own variation of state capitalism during this time, in which state capitalists and private capitalists are both part of the ruling class, is the most significant exception. For a brief sketch see Tom Bramble, “China after the boom,” Red Flag, July 29, 2015, https://redflag.org.au/article/china-after-boom.
  26. The view that globalization has produced a transnational ruling class without any national ties is defended by the sociologist William I. Robinson in A Theory of Global Capitalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). Robinson debates his critics in the May 2012 issue of Critical Sociology.
  27. See Chris Harman, “The State and Capitalism Today,” International Socialism 2:51, Summer 1991, (http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1991/xx/statcap.htm), for an attempt to analyze the complex ways in which state and capital remain entwined.
  28. In the 1960s and 1970s some dependency theorists believed that this indirect control was so strong that countries in the so-called Third World would remain in a permanently backward state. The subsequent development of countries such as China, South Korea, India and Brazil has undermined this view.
  29. For more on this topic, see Harry Magdoff, Imperialism Without Colonies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).
  30. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Also see the review by Tom Lewis, “Empire Strikes Out,” International Socialist Review 24, July–August 2002, http://www.isreview.org/issues/24/empire_strikes_out.shtml.
  31. Hardt and Negri, Empire, xiv.
  32. Ibid, 189.
  33. New York: Verso Books, 2012. For further commentary see Ashley Smith, “Global Empire or Imperialism?” International Socialist Review 92, Spring 2014, http://isreview.org/issue/92/global-empire-or-imperialism.
  34. “Global Capitalism and American Empire,” in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds.), Socialist Register 2004: The New Imperial Challenge (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 25.
  35. See Ashley Smith, “US imperialism’s pivot to Asia,” International Socialist Review 88, March–April 2013, http://isreview.org/issue/88/us-imperialisms-pivot-asia.
  36. Helene Cooper and Jane Perlez, “U.S. Sway in Asia Is Imperiled as China Challenges Alliances,” New York Times, May 30, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/31/world/asia/us-sway-in-asia-is-imperiled-as-china-challenges-alliances.html .
  37. Alan Maass, “The battle over Ukraine intensifies,” Socialist Worker, March 19, 2014,  http://socialistworker.org/2014/03/19/battle-over-ukraine-intensifies 
  38. See, for instance, Chris Williams, “Understanding Warsaw: Capitalism, Climate Change and Neocolonialism,” Truthout, 25 November 2013, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/20194-understanding-warsaw-capitalism-climate-change-neocolonialism 
  39. “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm 

Issue #82

March 2012

Enforcers for the global 1%

NATO and the G8 come to Chicago
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