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Red Theory: Imperialism, or monopoly capitalism

By J. Sykes

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Now that we’ve spent some time looking at the basic concepts of Marx’s critique of political economy, let’s move on to Lenin’s analysis of imperialism. Toward the end of the 1800s, the internal laws of motion of capitalism caused it to enter a new and final stage in its development – monopoly capitalism. In the essay “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin defines it like this:

“Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.”

Lenin goes on to point out, “Imperialism, as the highest stage of capitalism in America and Europe, and later in Asia, took final shape in the period 1898–1914. The Spanish-American War (1898), the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and the economic crisis in Europe in 1900 are the chief historical landmarks in the new era of world history.”

It is important to stress that, as Marxist-Leninists understand it, imperialism and monopoly capitalism are identical. You can’t have one without the other.

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx writes that monopoly arises dialectically from competition. Marx argued that, by the process of capitalism’s own internal laws of motion, capital becomes more and more centralized, more and more concentrated, into the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. But it was Lenin who saw the practical results of this process and properly understood the relationship between imperialism and the proletarian revolution.

Every modern industry is currently dominated by only a handful of monopolistic companies. The big banks have become intertwined with industry, creating finance capital and with it a financial oligarchy. They exploit workers both at home and abroad. These financial oligarchs have come to dominate bourgeois states, using their money to manipulate the media and buy politicians, and thereby use the imperialist military to partition and repartition the world according to their own economic interests. This has led to two world wars for the sake of the imperialist re-division of the world.

A main feature of imperialism is national and colonial oppression. We’ll go into more detail on this later, but for now, it is important to understand that national oppression is a product of monopoly capitalism. Seeking relief from the chronic crises of capitalism, the monopoly capitalists seek to dominate markets and export capital around the globe. They rob and pillage from the so-called Third World and bring the spoils of super-profits back home. This process locks down and enforces semi-colonial and semi-feudal relations in those countries, stunting their development. U.S. imperialism lives parasitically on the oppression of whole nations and peoples. The U.S. holds colonies in the Caribbean like Puerto Rico and the Pacific such as Guam and the Marshall Islands. Within its own borders, imperialism likewise uses national oppression to dominate the Hawaiian nation, the Chicano nation in the Southwest, and the African American nation in the Black Belt in the South.

By the end of World War II, the United States arose as the dominant imperialist power. However, it has since racked up a series of military defeats against the rising national liberation struggles, notably Vietnam in the 1970s, which marked the beginning of U.S. imperialism’s decline. The rise of the socialist countries contributed greatly to that decline. And while the U.S. currently stands at the forefront of the imperialist powers, inter-imperialist rivalry still exists, and other imperialist blocs, such as the European Union and Japan, also seek to dominate world markets.

Currently, however, the principal contradiction on the world scale is the contradiction between imperialism on the one hand and the movements for national liberation on the other. It is the anti-imperialist struggles of the masses of the oppressed nations that are the major force against imperialism today.

Wars of national liberation that weaken imperialism are progressive. As Stalin said in Foundations of Leninism, “The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.” Revolutionaries in imperialist countries should be what Lenin called “revolutionary defeatists,” opposing and seeking the defeat of their own countries in imperialist wars.

Modern imperialism has a lot of tools at its disposal. It relies upon and maintains a massive web of military bases and military alliances such as NATO, imposes sanctions, and resorts to economic coercion and blackmail through institutions like the IMF, WTO and World Bank. It uses direct military intervention and instigates coups for the purposes of destabilization and regime change, or pours billions of dollars into proxy wars through states like Israel and Ukraine. Because it is in decline, it grows more belligerent and desperately looks for any way it can to shift the balance of power back into its favor.

Marxist-Leninists analyze imperialism because we want to put that analysis to work. We need to understand who our friends and enemies are, and we need to understand how and why our enemies do what they do so that we can act most effectively to bring the imperialist monster of slaughter and plunder down once and for all.

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