Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

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Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism


a work by V. I. Lenin, who became in this book the first Marxist to reveal the economic and political essence of imperialism—a new stage of development that capitalism had entered by the early 20th century. His work was a direct continuation and further development of Das Kapital, in which Marx had examined the emergence and development of the capitalist mode of production and capitalist production relations, discovered the law of the movement of bourgeois society, provided an analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, and scientifically proved the inevitability of the downfall of capitalism and the victory of socialism.

In his book Lenin summarized the development of capitalism during the half century since the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital. Basing his analysis on the laws of capitalist development discovered by Marx and Engels, he showed that imperialism is the highest and last stage of capitalism and the eve of socialist revolution. For many years the study of imperialism was an integral part of Lenin’s struggle for the development of the revolutionary movement in Russia and for a revolutionary line in the international workers’ movement. Long before the outbreak of World War I, Lenin had noted new phenomena in the development of capitalism. In a number of works written between 1895 and 1913 he brought to light and analyzed the most recent phenomena of the epoch of imperialism. Among these works are “Draft and Explanation of a Program for the Social Democratic Party” [1895–96], “The War in China” [1900], “The Lessons of the Crisis” [1901], “Review of Home Affairs” [1901], “Marxism and Revisionism” [1908], “Concentration of Production in Russia” [1912], “The Growth of Capitalist Wealth” [1913], “Backward Europe and Advanced Asia” [1913], and “The Historical Fate of the Doctrine of Karl Marx” [1913]. In conjunction with his analysis of the causes of World War I, Lenin undertook a comprehensive study of the monopolistic stage in the development of capitalism. Without this study, correct leadership of the revolutionary movement and a successful struggle against the ideology of imperialist reaction and the reformist politics of compromise would have been impossible, and the path to socialism could not have been blazed.

Lenin began to study the literature on imperialism in earnest in mid-1915, while he was in Bern (Switzerland). At that time, he began to compile bibliography, draw up plans, make extracts and notes, and write summaries. He continued his work in Zurich. In mid-November 1915, he received a proposal to write a book that would be entitled On the Role of Finance Capital in Contemporary Life for Parus, a legal Petrograd publishing house that had organized a series of pamphlets entitled Europe Before and During the War. Deciding to take advantage of the opportunity for legal publication, even though it meant observing the limits imposed by tsarist censorship, Lenin accepted the offer.

The prospect of censorship essentially predetermined his style of presentation. In the preface to the Russian edition (April 1917), Lenin warned the reader that the work had been written in Aesopian language, with a view to getting around the tsarist censorship. The author was forced not only to restrict himself to an exclusively theoretical—in particular, economic—analysis but also to formulate the necessary observations on politics with great care and to present them as allusions and hints. Although the word “socialism” appears nowhere in the book, the entire content of the work leads the reader directly to a characterization of imperialism as the eve of socialist revolution. With the republication of the book in French and German in 1920, Lenin again pointed out the fact of censorship and remarked that he thought it would be useful for many Communists in capitalist countries to convince themselves through the example of the book “of the possibility—and necessity—of making use of even the slight remnants of legality which still remain at the disposal of the Communists, say, in contemporary America” (Poln. sobr, soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 303). Lenin’s work is a brilliant model of how the legal opportunities to propagandize Marxism could be used without making the slightest concessions in principle.

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was the product of an enormous amount of scholarly work and strenuous labor. Lenin made a profound study, generalizing extensive facts that characterized the development of social relations in various countries in the epoch of imperialism. He analyzed a great deal of material on the most varied questions of the economics and politics of imperialism, as well as on technology, domestic and especially foreign policy, history, geography, the workers’ movement, and the colonial question. Before writing the book he did critical analyses of hundreds of books, monographs, dissertations, pamphlets, journal and newspaper articles, and statistical collections published in many languages in various countries. In preparing the work, Lenin wrote 15 notebooks, which he labeled with letters of the Greek alphabet from alpha to omicron, as well as the Brailsford notebook and other materials. The preliminary writings for the book were later published as Notebooks on Imperialism. (They may be found in V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 28.) The notebooks are about 800 book pages long (about 50 printer’s sheets) and contain extracts from 148 books (including 106 in German, 23 in French, 17 in English, and two in Russian translation) and 232 articles (206 in German, 13 in French, and 13 in English) that appeared in 49 different periodicals (34 German, seven French, and eight English). Lenin did not usually make excerpts from the books he owned. He preferred to underline in the text, make marginal notes, and draw up a separate table of contents of the materials that he had marked in the text.

Lenin began the actual writing of the book in early 1916, completing it by the summer of that year. Because of the extremely complex situation produced by the imperialist war, as well as the need for secrecy, all correspondence concerning the publication of the book was conducted through M. N. Pokrov-skii, who lived in Paris and had ties with the publishing house. OnJune 19,1916 (old style), a 198-page handwritten manuscript was mailed to Pokrovskii. Intercepted and confiscated by French military authorities, it failed to reach Pokrovskii, and Lenin was forced to send a new copy—this time illegally—sealed in the binding of a French book. The Menshevik managers of the publishing house deleted from the manuscript a sharp criticism of Kautsky and Martov and inserted corrections that not only destroyed the distinctiveness of Lenin’s style but also distorted some of his scientific conclusions and propositions. For example, Lenin’s concept of “development” (that is, of capitalism into imperialism) was replaced by the concept of “transformation.” The expression “reactionary character,” which was applied by Lenin to the theory of “ultraimperialism,” was replaced by the words “backward character.” These are only a few of the many possible examples of Menshevik distortions of the book. When he returned to Russia, Lenin did not have the opportunity to reinstate the original text of the work. It was, however, restored and issued under Soviet power.

The book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was prepared for publication in the spring of 1917. However, it came out only in September under the title Imperialism, the Newest Stage of Capitalism. By Jan. 1, 1972, it had been published 237 times in the Soviet Union with a total edition of 8,015,000 copies. Abroad, it had been published 156 times in 30 countries as of Jan. 1, 1969.

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism consists of a preface, a preface to the French and German editions, and ten chapters: I. Concentration of Production and Monopolies; II. The Banks and Their New Role; III. Finance Capital and Finance Oligarchy; IV. The Export of Capital; V. The Division of the World Among Capitalist Associations; VI. The Division of the World Among the Great Powers; VII. Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism; VIII. The Parasitism and Decay of Capitalism; IX. The Critique of Imperialism; and X. The Place of Imperialism in History.

The first six chapters provide an all-around scientific analysis of the economic essence of imperialism as manifested in its basic economic features. The last four chapters are devoted to a generalized description of imperialism and to the exposure of the lack of scientific foundation of the reformist and bourgeois-apologist theorists of imperialism (for example, J. Hobson, R. Hilferding, and K. Kautsky). The historical place of imperialism as the eve of socialist revolution is analyzed.

Lenin’s book contains an extensive and comprehensively substantiated analysis of all of the basic features of imperialism. It discusses the concentration of production and capital, which reaches such a high stage that it causes the creation of monopolies that dominate economic life. It considers the merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation on this basis of a financial oligarchy. In his analysis Lenin also pointed out that it is characteristic of imperialism that the export of capital, as distinguished from that of commodities, becomes extremely important. International capitalist monopolies are formed, which share the world among themselves. Finally, the territorial division of the world among the major capitalist powers is completed. On the basis of these characteristics of imperialism, Lenin drew the conclusion: “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development in which the dominance of the monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the capitalist powers has been completed” (ibid., p. 387).

Lenin showed that the most characteristic attribute of the imperialist stage of capitalism is the domination of the monopolies. For this reason, he began his investigation of imperialism with an analysis of the concentration of production and capital. Lenin concluded that the concentration of production at a certain stage of development leads directly to monopolies. “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism,” he wrote, “we would have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism” (ibid., p. 386). The rule of the monopolies extends to the crucial spheres of economic life: production, exchange and distribution, and credit and monetary relations. The monopolies capture sources of raw materials and market sales, as well as the spheres of capital investment. They seek to concentrate entirely in their hands scientific specialists and the skilled labor force. Drawing generalizations from a vast amount of historical material, Lenin investigated the real path of development of capitalism from free competition through the concentration of production and capital to the rule of the monopolies. He showed the interpenetration of the two contradictory principles—monopoly and competition. Lenin revealed and scientifically substantiated the fact that the replacement of the dominance of free competition by the dominance of monopolies led to the transition of capitalism to its highest and last stage. At this stage, the monopolies prevailed, becoming the foundation of the economic life of the capitalist countries. Lenin wrote: “the rise of monopolies, as the result of the concentration of production, is a general and fundamental law of the present stage of development of capitalism” (ibid., p. 315).

Under imperialism, the basic contradiction of capitalism— that is, the contradiction between the social nature of production and private capitalist appropriation, between the workers and the bourgeoisie—is exacerbated to the extreme. Lenin proved that reaction, parasitism, and decay are characteristic of imperialism. Monopoly capital establishes its dictatorship over society and strives to suppress the workers’ and national liberation movements. The paramount expression of the decay of capitalism under contemporary conditions is the growth of militarism and the intensified militarization of the economy of the capitalist countries.

Lenin characterized imperialism as a world system of colonial oppression and financial strangulation of the great majority of the world’s population by a handful of imperialist countries. The overthrow of capitalism and the revolutionary transition to socialism become vital necessities. Having analyzed the contradictions of capitalism in its last stage, Lenin came to the conclusion that imperialism is the eve of socialist revolution. In the preface written for the book in 1920, Lenin wrote: “This has been confirmed since 1917 on a worldwide scale” (ibid., p. 308). Lenin demonstrated that revolutions occur at different times in various countries because of the uneven economic and political development of the capitalist countries under imperialism. He pointed out that the historic role of imperialism was to create in full measure the preconditions for the socialist revolution and the transition to socialism. On the basis of his analysis of imperialism, Lenin worked out the theory that it was possible for socialism to triumph initially in a single capitalist country.

Lenin’s work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism signified a new Leninist stage in the development of Marxist economic theory. The book is a sharp weapon in the struggle against the most recent bourgeois and social reformist “theories” of “people’s capitalism,” the various theories of “convergence” that preach that capitalism and communism develop along intersecting (convergent) lines toward “one world,” or a world “industrial society.”

Since the publication of Lenin’s work, the world capitalist system has undergone profound changes, contemporary imperialism has acquired new features, and the unresolvable antagonistic contradictions inherent in it have become sharper and deeper. Lenin’s characterization of imperialism has been completely confirmed by the entire course of history. Even today, his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism has enormous methodological value in devising the strategy and tactics of the international workers’ movement.


Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. “Tetradi po imperializmu.” Ibid., vol. 28.
Vladimir Il’ich Lenin: Biografiia, 4th ed. Moscow, 1970.
Istoriia Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soiuza, vol. 2. Moscow, 1966.
Mezhdunarodnoe soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1969.
Materialy XXIV s“ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1971.