By Farooq Sulehria
May 15, 2014
Lenin’s pamphlet, ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ (‘Imperialism’ from here on) is highly-canonised – deservedly so – in Marxist literature. Penned in the spring of 1916, Lenin himself pointed out the restrictions imposed by the circumstances. “This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship”, he pointed out.
Re-reading the pamphlet in the days of liberty, after the Russian revolution, was a painful experience for Lenin because of many passages were “distorted, cramped, compressed in an iron vice on account of the censor”. Lenin also pointed out the lack of data available to him during his exile in Vienna when he authored ‘Imperialism’. He may also have pointed out the luxury of time denied to revolutionaries and available to, in his own words, imperialism’s “hired coolies of the pen”.
For the next three decades, ‘Imperialism’ gained a textbook status owing to its prophetic analysis. Lenin and some of his Marxist contemporaries viewed the preceding wars – ‘Scramble for Africa’, the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War – as well as impending world wars for world domination, as a consequence of the capitalistic logic that breeds imperialism.
The Leninist perspective, expounded in ‘Imperialism’, of inter-imperial rivalry for world domination at the cost of world peace was validated by the two world wars. Concluded in a bitter polemical tone, ‘Imperialism’ was written indeed to counter Karl Kautsky, a major theoretician of the German Social Democratic party.
Kautsky thought that the ruling classes of the imperial countries, on realising the utter futility of war, would reconcile and start cooperating to rule the world. The emergence of such a global regime, in Kautsky’s view, would qualify as super imperialism.
While the world wars validated Lenin’s thesis – which retained a certain descriptive value even during the cold war – in the post-Cold War period the ‘hired coolies of the pen’ declared Lenin’s thesis of inter-imperial rivalry a flawed concept. Apparently, the imperial unity mirrored through the EU and NATO lent an aura to Kautsky’s thesis of super-imperialism. Such enthusiasts as the authors of the famous (less fashionable these days) tome, ‘Empire’ had declared imperialism dead by 1999.
Though the Iraq and Afghan wars forced the authors of Empire to re-adjust their thesis, Kautsky’s concept of super-imperialism was not punctured even by these wars even if certain Marxists attributed great significance to imperial differences over Iraq. All along these years, certain influential Marxist theoreticians have been pointing out the possibility of inter-imperial rivalries translating into global conflicts.
Should Ukraine be seen in this context? Is it the case that Russia and China, two rising imperial centres, will go in violent contradiction with Euro-US imperialisms? The conflict in Ukraine is definitely over its economic integration into the EU. While the EU tried to establish its economic control through a neo-fascist coup to, Russia is resisting in other ways.
Likewise, China and Russia have resisted the US/EU in Syria – though they all helped Sri Lanka in unison to crush the LTTE. True, we should be careful in assigning imperial status to China (even Russia), yet both these countries are emerging global players locking horns with US/European imperialism.
Was Lenin right, after all? Yes, but with a couple of caveats in place. First, had socialist revolutions been successful as the Third International had expected, we would not have been discussing ‘Imperialism’. Second, assigning permanency to ‘Imperialism’ is an intellectual mockery. The purpose of his ‘Imperialism’, Lenin thought, was “to understand the…economic essence of imperialism, for unless this is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics”.
Imperialism has transformed since 1916. In this ‘transformative’ process, it has overcome certain contradictions but generated others. In my view, instead of tagging the Ukrainian crisis, in a hurry, as a manifestation of inter-imperial conflict for polemical reasons, today’s imperialism must be analysed in the context of 21st century realities. While in certain cases plunder for resources and struggle for global domination may assume inter-imperial tensions involving emerging powers such as China and Russia, it is highly likely that China and Russian may reach an accommodation with Europe and the US.
Yet another possibility is a cold war-like situation whereby major powers will engage each other in proxy wars. However, countries in the periphery will suffer both in the case of reviving inter-imperial conflict as well as the strengthening of a super-imeprial system that might accommodate Russia and China.
It is at this juncture that the relevance and importance of ‘Imperialism’ should be judged. Its value does not lie in the accuracy (or supposed inaccuracies) of Lenin’s ‘prophecies’. It lies in its analysis of capitalism and description of imperialism. Imperial threat to global peace is the essence of ‘Imperialism’. You cannot have imperialism without global conflicts. In Lenin’s time, imperialism translated into inter-imperial wars. Today, it is the periphery vs the centre.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.