Annals of Ideology:
Lenin's Theory of Imperialism and Panitch & Gindin's Critique
By Thomas Riggins
In a recent booklet, by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (P&G), "Global Capitalism and American Empire," Lenin’s theory of imperialism comes in for some heavy criticism. Let’s see if it is justified.
The authors, in a section entitled "Rethinking Imperialism," caution against considering "globalization as inevitable and irreversible." They quote the Communist Manifesto as follows: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." Curiously, they think Marx and Engels were exhibiting "prescience" when they wrote this – which they call a description "of a future that strongly matches our present."
But Marx and Engels were not prophesying the future. They were describing the historical reality of their own day – so manifest, already by 1848, was the imperial drive of capitalism. Incidentally, the fact that P&G can take an 1848 description of capitalism for a future prediction strongly matching the present explains one of the reasons why the classics of Marxism have not become outdated.
P&G look at history and discern three "great structural crises" in capitalism: 1) Post 1870s colonial rivalry leading to World War I; 2) the Great Depression, leading to World War II; 3) globalization rapidly advancing due to economic problems of the 1970s. Because the contours of these crises and the results produced by them could not be predicted in advance, P&G contend that globalization is "neither inevitable" re: classical Marxism, "nor impossible to sustain." Since Lenin’s theory of imperialism implies the opposite conclusions, the authors think his theory is mistaken.
Lets take a closer look. Lenin’s theory, according to the authors, made the "fundamental mistake" of assuming "capitalist economic stages and crises." Lenin was "defective" in his "historical reading of imperialism" as well as his understanding of capital accumulation and, lastly, his view that "inter-imperialist rivalry" was "an immutable law of capitalist globalization."
After having asserted all this, P&G conclude that, contrary to Lenin’s ideas, "A distinctive capitalist version of imperialism did not suddenly arrive with the so-called monopoly or finance-capital stage of capitalism...."
P&G accuse Lenin of "reductionism" in equating monopoly capitalism with imperialism. They maintain that "capitalism" and "imperialism" are independent of each other ("two distinct concepts"). History tells them that imperialism can be traced further back than the 1870s: that it goes at least as far back as mercantilism. This is just playing with words. The Romans were imperialists as far as that goes. Lenin was not discussing some universal ahistorical "imperialism" but the specific historical imperialism of his own epoch based on the domination of financial capital.
Lenin saw that after 1873 (as a result of crises) monopoly capitalism began to consolidate and replace so-called competitive capitalism: the imperialism of Lenin’s days was a direct outgrowth of this new type of, a higher type in his words, of capitalism.
We can, without accusing Lenin of having a defective historical understanding, agree with P&G that it is false to maintain that "the nature of modern imperialism was once and for all determined in the kinds of rivalries attending the stage of industrial concentration and financialization associated with turn-of-the [19th]-century monopoly capital."
But of course they are correct. No Marxist, especially Lenin, would maintain history gets frozen at a particular stage of its development. Lenin says of his definition of imperialism that it is convenient to sum up the principle aspects of the phenomena he is describing but "nevertheless inadequate" because all definitions [and theories based on them] are "conditional and relative" because all historical social events and formations are in flux.
P&G would have a better grasp of Lenin’s theory if they understood it in its own terms and did not misrepresent it as a "once and for all" statement of the nature of imperialism. Their mistake is in thinking Lenin’s view of imperialism in terms of an evolution of economic stages and crises within capitalism was itself a mistake.
P&G also deny that imperialism is the "highest stage of capitalism." They do this because they are historically situated in the 21st century phase of "globalization" and Lenin’s theory, now almost a century old, dealt with the capitalism of his era. Therefore they maintain that what he was observing was "a relatively early phase of capitalism." They could have saved themselves a lot of unnecessary Lenin criticism had they been more historical themselves. Capitalism is not going to go back to a previous stage of independent national capitalisms. It will continue to internationalize itself through the process we call "globalization" and what Lenin was describing was a relatively early phase of the highest stage of capitalism. What we call "globalization" is just a euphemism for the domination of the world by a handful of powerful states dominated by financial and monopoly elites that continue to plunder the world in their own interests. Lenin saw that this system was really a transitional system to an even higher form of economic development – namely socialism. This transitional nature of the "highest stage of capitalism" is presently obscured by the temporary world dominance of US monopoly capitalism.
We should be absolutely clear about this, Lenin meant by "highest stage" not that the historical features of capitalism in his epoch were fixed for all (capitalist) time, as P&G seem to imply, but only that capitalism had, as capitalism, no higher stage to evolve into that would renounce the need to export capital (finance capital especially) and find markets abroad. Globalization is just the latest stage of monopoly capitalism as it has transformed itself and developed since the days of Lenin, but it is still the logical outcome of the situation described by Marx and Engels in 1848.
It is also, I think, an error to hold, as do P&G, that Lenin and like minded theorists of the past did not recognize the role of the state in relation to the market: that they failed "to appreciate the crucial role of the state in making ‘free markets’ possible and then to make them work."
A strange accusation to make against someone who viewed the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie and thought that it functioned to further the interests of the capitalist class and its struggle to, among other things, build, acquire, and maintain markets both domestic and foreign.
It is true that Lenin could not foresee the specific historical development that has resulted in "neoliberal" globalization dominated by one "superpower." But it is also true that the theory laid out by Lenin in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism remains the best starting point for any attempt to understand the contemporary world.