Students of imperialism appropriately refer to the polemical but theoretically relevant essay authored by Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto. In this essay, the authors argue that capitalism as a mode of production is driven to traverse the globe, for investment opportunities, for cheap labor, for natural resources, for land. One can argue that Marx and Engels were among the first to theorize about globalization.
Lenin advanced the theory of imperialism in his famous essay Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In addition to the inspiration from Marx and Engels, he drew from the sophisticated writings of Rudolf Hilferding and John Hobson. For him, writing in the midst of the bloodshed of World War I and revolutionary ferment in Russia, there was a need to understand the connections between the expansionist needs of capitalism, competition among capitalist states, and imperialist war. With that motivation, Lenin postulated five key features of what he called imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. This new stage of capitalist development in the twentieth century included:
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," or 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 descriptions of these five features of twentieth century imperialism were prescient as to their long-term vision. Imperialism was not just a way in which powerful states acted in the world but a global stage of capitalism. The political, military, and economic dimensions of the world were inextricably connected in a profoundly new way, different from prior periods of human history.
In this stage national economies and the global economy were dominated by monopolies. That is, small numbers of banks and corporations controlled the majority of the wealth and productive capacity of the world. (The Brandt Commission in the early 1980s estimated, for example, that 200 corporations and banks controlled twenty-five percent of the world’s wealth). Monopolization included a shrinking number of economic actors that controlled larger and larger shares of each economic sector (steel, auto, fossil fuels, for example) and fewer and fewer actors controlling more of the totality of all these sectors.
Lenin added that twentieth century finance capital assumed a primary role in the global economy compared to prior centuries when banks were merely the bookkeepers of the capitalist system. Corporate capital and financial capital had become indistinguishable. This, in our own day, became known as "financialization.”
The development of finance capital, Lenin argued, led to the export of capital, the promotion of investments, the enticement of a debt system, and the expanding control of all financial transactions by the few hundred global banks. Capitalism was no longer just about expropriating labor and natural resources, processing these into products for sale on a world market but it now was about financial speculation, the flow of currencies as much as the flow of products of labor. It was in this stage of capitalism that the financial system was used as a lever to transform all of the world’s economies, particularly by increasing profits through imposing policies of austerity. Austerity included cutting government programs, deregulating economies so banks and corporations could act more freely, and, further, instituting public policies to maximize the privatization of virtually every public institution. These policies were referred to as “neoliberal.”
And lastly, Lenin observed, world politics was shaped by economic and political collusion of international monopolies to collaborate, routinize, and regulate economic competition. But, as he saw in 1916, that world of routinized global finance capital had broken down, states representing their own financial conglomerates engaged in massive violence, in World War, to maintain their share of territory and wealth. So that imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, always had embedded within it, the seeds of ever-expanding war between states driven by their own monopolies.
Theorists and revolutionaries from the Global South found Lenin’s theory of imperialism to be a compelling explanation of the historical development of capitalism as a world system and its connections to war, violence, colonialism, and neo-colonialism. However, they argued that Lenin’s narrative was incomplete in its description of imperialism’s impact on the countries and peoples of the Global South. Several revolutionary writers and activists from the Global South added a “bottom up” narrative about imperialism. Theorists such as Andre Gunter Frank, Samir Amin, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Fernando Cardoso, Theotonio Dos Santos, and Jose Carlos Mariategui added an understanding of “dependency” to the discussion of imperialism.
Dependency theorists suggested that the imperialist stage of capitalism was not enforced in the Global South only at the point of a gun. Dependency required the institutionalization of class structures in the Global South. Ruling classes in the Global South, local owners of factories, fields, and natural resources, and their armies, collaborated with the ruling classes of the global centers of power in the Global North. In fact, the imperial system required collaboration between ruling classes in the global centers with ruling classes in the periphery of the international system. And ultimately, imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, was a political and economic system in which the ruling classes in the centers of power worked in collaboration with the ruling classes in the Global South to exploit and repress the vast majority of human beings in the world.
Dependency theory, therefore, added insights to the Leninist analysis. First, the imperial system required collaboration from the rich and powerful classes in the centers of global power, the Global North, developing and recruiting the rich and powerful classes in the countries of the Global South. It also meant that there was a need to understand that the imperial system required smooth flows of profits from the Global South to the Global North. Therefore, there was a mutuality of interests among ruling classes everywhere. The addition of dependency theory also argued that people in the periphery, workers and peasants in poor countries, had objective interests not only opposed to the imperial countries from the north but to the interests of their own national ruling classes. And, if this imperial system exploited workers in the centers of power and also in the peripheral areas of the world, then there ultimately was a commonality of interests in the poor, oppressed, and exploited all across the face of the globe.
Relevance for the Twenty-First Century
Although the world of the twenty-first century is different from that of the twentieth century, commonalities exist. These include the expansion of finance capital, rising resistance to it everywhere, and conflicts in the Global North and the Global South between powerful ruling classes and masses of people seeking democracy and economic well-being. In the recent past, the resurgence of protest by workers, students, farmers and peasants, the popular classes, has been reflected in mass movements against neoliberal globalization and international financial institutions. These include Arab Spring, the Fight for Fifteen, and a number of campaigns that challenge racism, sexism, joblessness, the destruction of the environment, land grabs, and removal of indigenous peoples from their land.
In Latin America, movements emerged that have been labeled “the Pink Tide” or the “Bolivarian Revolution.” These are movements driven by struggles between the Global North and the Global South and class struggles within countries of the Global South. Workers and peasants from the Global South have been motivated to create, albeit within powerful historical constraints, alternative economic and political institutions in their own countries. The awakening of the masses of people in the Global South constitute one of the two main threats to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. The first threat is the movements that are struggling to break the link between their own ruling classes and those of the North. That includes working with leaders who are standing up against the imperial system (leaders such as in Venezuela, Bolivia, and, of course Cuba). The other threat to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is, as Lenin observed in 1916, war between imperial powers.
In sum, as activists mobilize to oppose US war against the peoples of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, it is critical to be aware of the imperial system of finance capital, class systems in the Global North and Global South, and to realize that solidarity involves understanding the common material interests of popular classes in both the Global North and South. In 2019, solidarity includes opposing United States militarism in Latin America, economic blockades against peoples seeking their own liberation, and covert operations to support current and former ruling classes in their countries that collaborate with imperialism.
Concretely, this means supporting the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and throughout the Western Hemisphere, protests in Haiti, and, of course, the Cuban Revolution.