Lenin on Imperialism

In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Vladimir Lenin was stunned by the wave of social-patriotism that swept the Second International, including its German flagship, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). All the solemn resolutions adopted by the world’s leading socialists stating that workers in belligerent countries would launch simultaneous general strikes to resist inter-imperialist war were revealed to be nothing more than scraps of paper. The eagerness with which the leaders of the mass working-class parties directed their followers to enlist in a mutual fratricide forced Lenin to undertake a wholesale reevaluation of many of his presumptions, particularly those regarding the leadership of the SPD and the International.

For years, Lenin did not take seriously Rosa Luxemburg’s denunciations of the SPD leadership’s commitment to seeking a gradual, evolutionary road to socialism. In searching for the roots of the WW I betrayal, he came to understand the connection between the emergence of a new, imperialist stage of capitalism and the capitulation of the Socialist International’s leading parties to their respective bourgeoisies. Today every group which claims the mantle of Leninism ostensibly identifies with Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, yet few have been capable of applying it to the current conflict in Ukraine. Many groups which correctly denounced NATO’s attacks on Iraq and Libya as imperialist aggression have been echoing the denunciations of “Russian neo-imperialism” by German chancellor Olaf Scholz and the US State Department over Ukraine.

The ‘monopoly stage of capitalism’

Lenin offered the following succinct description of imperialism:

“If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.”
V. I. Lenin, Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916

The “monopoly stage of capitalism” developed as a result of the tendency of larger, better funded and more technologically advanced firms to eliminate their competitors:

“Half a century ago, when Marx was writing Capital, free competition appeared to the overwhelming majority of economists to be a ‘natural law’. Official science tried, by a conspiracy of silence, to kill the works of Marx, who by a theoretical and historical analysis of capitalism had proved that free competition gives rise to the concentration of production, which, in turn, at a certain stage of development, leads to monopoly. Today, monopoly has become a fact. Economists are writing mountains of books in which they describe the diverse manifestations of monopoly, and continue to declare in chorus that ‘Marxism is refuted.’ But facts are stubborn things, as the English proverb says, and they have to be reckoned with, whether we like it or not. The facts show that differences between capitalist countries, e.g., in the matter of protection or free trade, only give rise to insignificant variations in the form of monopolies or in the moment of their appearance; and that 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.”

Lenin stressed that monopolies emerge “as the result of the concentration of production,” which results, as Marx observed, from the tendency of those capitalist enterprises capable of producing commodities more efficiently to undersell their competitors:

“The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, all circumstances remaining the same, on the productivity of labour, and this depends again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller.”
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1867

Higher labour productivity–which depends on the level of available technology, the skill of the producers and the efficient organisation of the workplace–in combination with the natural economies of large-scale production resulted in the formation of monopolies, as smaller enterprises were undersold and eventually bankrupted by larger and better organised competitors.

It is important to distinguish between monopolies arising from capitalist competition and state monopolies established by government intervention in less advanced countries. An example of the latter occurred when Mexico nationalised British-owned oil companies in the 1930s:

“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists. The present policy [of the Mexican government – Translator] is in the second stage; its greatest conquests are the expropriations of the railroads and the oil industries.

“These measures are entirely within the domain of state capitalism. However, in a semicolonial country, state capitalism finds itself under the heavy pressure of private foreign capital and of its governments, and cannot maintain itself without the active support of the workers.”
Leon Trotsky, Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management, 1938

Today, many neo-colonial countries maintain state monopolies because domestic firms are unable to compete with imperialist corporations. The nationalised Venezuelan, Brazilian and Russian energy sectors were all created to resist absorption or control by foreign capital.

In a polemical exchange with P. Kievsky (Georgy Pyatakov) Lenin described how imperialist finance capital can “annex” foreign competitors:

“Economically, imperialism is monopoly capitalism. To acquire full monopoly, all competition must be eliminated, and not only on the home market (of the given state), but also on foreign markets, in the whole world. Is it economically possible, ‘in the era of finance capital’, to eliminate competition even in a foreign state? Certainly it is. It is done through a rival’s financial dependence and acquisition of his sources of raw materials and eventually of all his enterprises.”

. . .

“Big finance capital of one country can always buy up competitors in another, politically independent country and constantly does so. Economically, this is fully achievable. Economic ‘annexation’ is fully ‘achievable’ without political annexation and is widely practised. In the literature on imperialism you will constantly come across indications that Argentina, for example, is in reality a ‘trade colony’ of Britain, or that Portugal is in reality a ‘vassal’ of Britain, etc. And that is actually so: economic dependence upon British banks, indebtedness to Britain, British acquisition of their railways, mines, land, etc., enable Britain to ‘annex’ these countries economically without violating their political independence.”
V. I. Lenin, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, 1916

In Capital Marx cited foreign investment as a way for capitalists to partially offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall:

“Capitals invested in foreign trade can yield a higher rate of profit, because, in the first place, there is competition with commodities produced in other countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value even though cheaper than the competing countries. In so far as the labour of the more advanced country is here realised as labour of a higher specific weight, the rate of profit rises, because labour which has not been paid as being of a higher quality is sold as such. The same may obtain in relation to the country, to which commodities are exported and to that from which commodities are imported; namely, the latter may offer more materialised labour in kind than it receives, and yet thereby receive commodities cheaper than it could produce them. Just as a manufacturer who employs a new invention before it becomes generally used, undersells his competitors and yet sells his commodity above its individual value, that is, realises the specifically higher productiveness of the labour he employs as surplus-labour. He thus secures a surplus-profit. As concerns capitals invested in colonies, etc., on the other hand, they may yield higher rates of profit for the simple reason that the rate of profit is higher there due to backward development, and likewise the exploitation of labour, because of the use of slaves, coolies, etc.”
Marx, Capital Vol. III, 1893

Lenin identified the search for increased profit as the chief motivation for capital export:

“As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc. The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become ‘overripe’ and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for ‘profitable’ investment.”
Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism

He considered the export of capital, rather than commodities, to be characteristic of the imperialist stage of capitalism:

“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.”
V. I. Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, October 1916

Lenin stipulated that exported capital was not expected to merely turn a profit, but rather a super-profit–or “surplus-profit” as Marx called it –i.e., a return significantly higher than the domestic average:

“…monopoly yields superprofits, i.e., a surplus of profits over and above the capitalist profits that are normal and customary all over the world. … Imperialism is monopoly capitalism. Every cartel, trust, syndicate, every giant bank is a monopoly. Superprofits have not disappeared; they still remain. The exploitation of all other countries by one privileged, financially wealthy country remains and has become more intense. A handful of wealthy countries—there are only four of them, if we mean independent, really gigantic, ‘modern’ wealth: England, France, the United States and Germany—have developed monopoly to vast proportions, they obtain superprofits running into hundreds, if not thousands, of millions, they ‘ride on the backs’ of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in other countries and fight among themselves for the division of the particularly rich, particularly fat and particularly easy spoils.

“This, in fact, is the economic and political essence of imperialism….”

The “Theses on the Eastern Question,” adopted at the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International in 1922 (the last one under Lenin’s tutelage) provided an elegantly simple formula: “the essence of imperialism is its exploitation of the different levels of development of the productive forces in the different sectors of the world economy, in order to extract monopoly super-profits.” An imperialist country is one which is sufficiently advanced that, regardless of temporary fluctuations, its economic exchange with the outside world results in a net inflow of value over time from less developed countries.

Imperialism as a Great Power game and the role of Russia in WWI

Many leftists tend to view imperialism as a function of geopolitical weight, national oppression, military capacity and territorial ambition, rather than net extraction of value. Lenin’s writings contain formulations that blur the line between the “value-extraction” and the military capacity to carve out “spheres of influence.” This can be attributed to the intense great power competition to seize less developed territories in the decades preceding World War I. Writing in 1916, Lenin viewed the colonial system of exclusive exploitation by the “motherland” as typical of imperialist domination:

“National self-determination means political independence. Imperialism seeks to violate such independence because political annexation often makes economic annexation easier, cheaper (easier to bribe officials, secure concessions, put through advantageous legislation. etc.), more convenient, less troublesome—just as imperialism seeks to replace democracy generally by oligarchy.”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

Lenin understood that imperialist domination could take other forms as well, observing in the same text:

“…the present imperialist war offers examples of how the force of financial ties and economic interests draws a small, politically independent state into the struggle of the Great Powers (Britain and Portugal). On the other hand, the violation of democracy with regard to small nations, much weaker (both economically and politically) than their imperialist ‘patrons’, leads either to revolt (Ireland) or to defection of whole regiments to the enemy (the Czechs). In this situation it is not only ‘achievable’, from the point of view of finance capital, but sometimes even profitable for the trusts, for their imperialist policy, for their imperialist war, to allow individual small nations as much democratic freedom as they can, right down to political independence, so as not to risk damaging their ‘own’ military operations. To overlook the peculiarity of political and strategic relationships and to repeat indiscriminately a word learned by rote, ‘imperialism’, is anything but Marxism” (see: Ibid.).

After WWII the US sought to integrate its defeated rivals, West Germany and Japan, into the global institutions of Pax Americana, while orchestrating the “decolonisation” of the French and British empires to facilitate the penetration of American finance capital in the newly “independent” former colonies. The central preoccupation of US policy makers at that time was rolling back, or at least “containing”, “Communism” in the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, North Korea and Eastern Europe. America’s “anti-colonial” posturing was designed in part to prevent further social revolutions. By the end of the 1970s direct colonial rule had ceased (with very few exceptions) while economic exploitation was intensified as the larger imperialist powers (Germany, Japan, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Australia) operated as a sort of “united front” under US leadership. The end of the Soviet counterweight in the early 1990s opened the door for the “Washington Consensus”—under which the markets and resources of the semi-colonial world were pried open for untrammelled imperialist exploitation.

Lenin’s tendency to associate imperialist exploitation with naked colonial domination (which was typical of the period in which he was writing) has inclined some contemporary “Leninists” to view conflicts over territory as evidence of imperialism. This confusion is deepened by superficial similarities between some of the larger and better developed dependent capitalist countries (Russia, Brazil, etc.) and actual imperialist countries. Today the vast majority of capitalist countries have both foreign investments as well as domestic monopolies. But net value flows over a significant period of time are universally negative for semi-colonial countries, regardless of their relatively minor holdings abroad. Similarly, their “monopolies” generally originate as protectionist measures to stave off better financed and more advanced foreign competitors. These features do not constitute evidence of actual imperialism—only net value flows determine whether a given country is a net exploiter of more backward countries or itself subjected to net foreign exploitation.

Lenin discussed how finance capital subjugates formally independent countries:

“Alongside the colonial possessions of the Great Powers, we have placed the small colonies of the small states, which are, so to speak, the next objects of a possible and probable ‘redivision’ of colonies. These small states mostly retain their colonies only because the big powers are torn by conflicting interests, friction, etc., which prevent them from coming to an agreement on the division of the spoils.… Finance capital is such a great, such a decisive, you might say, force in all economic and in all international relations, that it is capable of subjecting, and actually does subject, to itself even states enjoying the fullest political independence.”
Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin distinguished modern, “finance capital” imperialism from all previous forms:

“Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practised imperialism. But ‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality or bragging, like the comparison: ‘Greater Rome and Greater Britain.’ Even the capitalist colonial policy of previous stages of capitalism is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.”

He also observed:

“To the numerous ‘old’ motives of colonial policy, finance capital has added the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence, i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopoly profits and so on, economic territory in general.”

Modern imperialism differed from “even the capitalist colonial policy of previous stages of capitalism” because of the expanded capacity of finance capital to extract surplus-profits from a country’s relations with the outside world. Portugal, a colonial power with imperialist ambitions, was characterised by Lenin as a “trade colony of Britain,” i.e., a non-imperialist country in terms of finance capital:

“In 1884 Portugal was the only European power with any settlements in the interior of central Africa and it was the only country which had extensive commercial ties with the African states of the interior. No other Europeans had a presence that came anywhere near to that of the Portuguese.

“Portugal’s determination to compete in Africa at the level of the great powers had mixed consequences. In 1892 Portugal defaulted on its international debt and faced the prospect of losing its empire almost as soon as it had been acquired. That it did not do so was in part the result of the flow of wealth from the empire – re-exports of colonial produce, the hard currency earned by the ports and railways and the remittances of the migrant labourers who kept the Rand mines working.”
Malyn Newitt, Portugal in European and World History, 2009

Portugal had foreign investments and colonial holdings, but Lenin rightly classified it as a “vassal” of the British empire, rather than an imperialist power in its own right.

While describing Russia’s involvement in WWI as “imperialist,” Lenin stipulated that, “in general,” it was of a different, more primitive, character than that of the more advanced capitalist great powers:

“In Russia, capitalist imperialism of the latest type has fully revealed itself in the policy of tsarism towards Persia, Manchuria and Mongolia; but, in general, military and feudal imperialism predominates in Russia. In no country in the world is the majority of the population oppressed so much as it is in Russia; Great Russians constitute only 43 per cent of the population, i.e., less than half; all the rest are denied rights as aliens. Of the 170 million inhabitants of Russia, about 100 million are oppressed and denied rights. Tsarism is waging war to seize Galicia and finally to crush the liberties of the Ukrainians, to seize Armenia, Constantinople, etc. Tsarism regards the war as a means of diverting attention from the growth of discontent within the country and of suppressing the growing revolutionary movement. At the present time, for every two Great Russians in Russia there are from two to three rightless ‘aliens’: tsarism is striving by means of the war to increase the number of nations oppressed by Russia, to perpetuate this oppression and thereby undermine the struggle for freedom which the Great Russians themselves are waging. The possibility of oppressing and robbing other nations perpetuates economic stagnation, because, often, the source of income is not the development of productive forces, but the semi-feudal exploitation of ‘aliens.’ Thus, on the part of Russia, the war is distinguished for its profoundly reactionary and anti-liberating character.”
V. I. Lenin, Socialism and War, July – August 1915

Only in “Persia, Manchuria and Mongolia” was the Russian bourgeoisie engaged in “imperialism of the latest type;” for the most part under the Tsar, “military and feudal imperialism predominate[d].”

The Russian bourgeoisie did not operate in the less developed nations of its “near abroad” due to an over-saturated home market, but rather because of autocratic restrictions on domestic capital accumulation. In an article published in March 1917, Trotsky observed that in 1905 the Russian bourgeoisie had hoped that the road to a more “normal” form of capitalist development would be opened:

“In 1905, Milukov, the present militant Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the Russo-Japanese war an adventure and demanded its immediate cessation. This was also the spirit of the liberal and radical press. The strongest industrial organizations favored immediate peace in spite of unequaled disasters. Why was it so? Because they expected internal reforms. The establishment of a Constitutional system, a parliamentary control over the budget and the state finances, a better school system and, especially, an increase in the land possessions of the peasants, would, they hoped, increase the prosperity of the population and create a vast internal market for Russian industry.”

When these reforms did not materialise, the Russian bourgeoisie, terrified by the tumultuous popular mass upsurges, resigned itself to the autocratic status quo:

“The agrarian revolts of the peasants, the ever growing struggle of the proletariat and the spread of insurrections in the army caused the liberal bourgeoisie to fall back into the camp of the Tzarist bureaucracy and reactionary nobility. Their alliance was sealed by the coup d’ état of June 3rd, 1907. Out of this coup d’ état emerged the Third and the Fourth Dumas. The peasants received no land. The administrative system changed only in name, not in substance. The development of an internal market consisting of prosperous farmers, after the American fashion, did not take place. The capitalist classes, reconciled with the régime of June 3rd, turned their attention to the usurpation of foreign markets.”
Leon Trotsky, War and Peace, 30 March 1917

Lenin observed that Russia had seized territories in which, “the development of capitalism and the general level of culture are often higher…than in the centre” (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination). As he explained in a polemic with fellow Bolshevik Georgy Pyatakov, the advocacy of “self-determination” for the peoples of the Tsarist “prison house” was not intended to address economic exploitation by monopoly capital, but simply to support democratic rights:

“No political measure can prohibit economic phenomena. Whatever political form Poland adopts, whether she be part of Tsarist Russia or Germany, or an autonomous region, or a politically independent state, there is no prohibiting or repealing her dependence on the finance capital of the imperialist powers, or preventing that capital from buying up the shares of her industries.

“The independence Norway ‘achieved’ in 1905 was only political. It could not affect its economic dependence, nor was this the intention. That is exactly the point made in our theses. We indicated that self-determination concerns only politics, and it would therefore be wrong even to raise the question of its economic unachievability.”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

While Tsarist Russia’s “predominantly military and feudal imperialism” allowed it to super-exploit more backward regions like Turkestan, the totality of its economic relations involved a net outward transfer of value to “Anglo-French imperialist capital”. In September 1914 Lenin described tsarism as essentially a hireling of British and French imperialism:

“The other group of belligerent nations is headed by the British and the French bourgeoisie, who are hoodwinking the working class and the toiling masses by asserting that they are waging a war for the defence of their countries, for freedom and civilisation and against German militarism and despotism. In actual fact, this bourgeoisie has long been spending thousands of millions to hire the troops of Russian tsarism, the most reactionary and barbarous monarchy in Europe, and prepare them for an attack on Germany.”
V. I. Lenin, The War and Russian Social Democracy, 28 September 1914

After the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917, the Kerensky government continued to function as a subordinate partner of French and British imperialism:

“In the field of foreign policy, which has now been brought to the forefront by objective circumstances, the new government is a government for the continuation of the imperialist war, a war that is being waged in alliance with the imperialist powers—Britain, France, and others—for division of the capitalist spoils and for subjugating small and weak nations. Subordinated to the interests of Russian capitalism and its powerful protector and master—Anglo-French imperialist capitalism, the wealthiest in the world, the new government, notwithstanding the wishes expressed in no uncertain fashion on behalf of the obvious majority of the peoples of Russia through the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies, has taken no real steps to put an end to the slaughter of peoples for the interests of the capitalists. It has not even published the secret treaties of an obviously predatory character (for the partition of Persia, the plunder of China, the plunder of Turkey, the partition of Austria, the annexation of Eastern Prussia, the annexation of the German colonies, etc.), which, as everybody knows, bind Russia to Anglo-French predatory imperialist capital. It has confirmed these treaties concluded by tsarism, which for centuries robbed and oppressed more nations than other tyrants and despots, and which not only oppressed, but also disgraced and demoralised the Great-Russian nation by making it an executioner of other nations.”
V. I. Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, September 1917

Lenin castigated Kerensky’s “socialist” supporters as minions of British and French imperialism:

“By rising up in arms against that programme because they fear a break with ‘Britain and France’, our Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries are virtually carrying out a capitalist foreign policy programme, while embellishing it with florid and innocent phrases about ‘revision of treaties’, declarations in support of ‘peace without annexations’, etc. All these pious wishes are doomed to remain hollow phrases, for capitalist reality puts the issue bluntly: either submit to the imperialists of one of the two groups, or wage a revolutionary struggle against all imperialists. …

“The foreign policy of the capitalists and the petty bourgeoisie is ‘alliance’ with the imperialists, that is, disgraceful dependence on them. The foreign policy of the proletariat is alliance with the revolutionaries of the advanced countries and with all the oppressed nations against all and any imperialists.”
V. I. Lenin, The Foreign Policy of the Russian Revolution, 27 June 1917

British imperialism threatened the Provisional Government with revoking the territorial concessions promised to the Tsar, unless Russia continued to fight:

“Britain at any rate will not renounce the seizure (annexation) of Palestine and Mesopotamia, though she is prepared to punish the Russians (for the ‘virtual armistice’ on the Russian-German front) by denying them Galicia, Constantinople, Armenia, etc.”
V. I. Lenin, Secrets of Foreign Policy, 23 May 1917

Trotsky’s retrospective description of Russia’s role in WWI closely paralleled Lenin’s contemporary observations:

“Russia’s participation in the war was self-contradictory both in motives and in aims. That bloody struggle was waged essentially for world domination. In this sense it was beyond Russia’s scope. The war aims of Russia herself (the Turkish Straits, Galicia, Armenia) were provincial in character, and to be decided only incidentally according to the degree in which they answered the interests of the principal contestants.

“At the same time Russia, as one of the great powers, could not help participating in the scramble of the advanced capitalist countries, just as in the preceding epoch she could not help introducing shops, factories, railroads, rapid-fire guns and airplanes. The not infrequent disputes among Russian historians of the newest school as to how far Russia was ripe for present-day imperialist policies often fall into mere scholasticism, because they look upon Russia in the international arena as isolated, as an independent factor, whereas she was but one link in a system.”
Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1932

Tsarist Russia’s predominantly “military and feudal imperialist” character dictated its subordinate role in the bloc with its more advanced allies:

“In the world hierarchy of the powers, Russia occupied before the war a considerably higher position than China. What position she would have occupied after the war, if there had been no revolution, is a different question. But the Russian autocracy on the one hand, the Russian bourgeoisie on the other, contained features of compradorism, ever more and more clearly expressed. They lived and nourished themselves upon their connections with foreign imperialism, served it, and without their support could not have survived. To be sure, they did not survive in the long run even with its support. The semi-comprador Russian bourgeoisie had world-imperialistic interests in the same sense in which an agent working on percentages lives by the interests of his employer.”

Various anarchist, pseudo-Trotskyist and Maoist currents who accept the popular notion of imperialism as the domination of small countries by bigger ones, described the USSR as “imperialist” or “social-imperialist.” When the Soviet army occupied eastern Poland in 1939 in accordance with the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, a renegade faction of the Trotskyist Fourth International, led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham, considered it to be a manifestation of Soviet “imperialism.”

“Can the present expansion of the Kremlin be termed imperialism? First of all we must establish what social content is included in this term. History has known the ‘imperialism’ of the Roman state based on slave labor, the imperialism of feudal land-ownership, the imperialism of commercial and industrial capital, the imperialism of the Czarist monarchy, etc. The driving force behind the Moscow bureaucracy is indubitably the tendency to expand its power, its prestige, its revenues. This is the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes. However, in contemporary literature, at least Marxist literature, imperialism is understood to mean the expansionist policy of finance capital which has a very sharply defined economic content. To employ the term ‘imperialism’ for the foreign policy of the Kremlin – without elucidating exactly what this signifies – means simply to identify the policy of the Bonapartist bureaucracy with the policy of monopolistic capitalism on the basis that both one and the other utilize military force for expansion. Such an identification, capable of sowing only confusion, is much more proper to petty-bourgeois democrats than to Marxists.”
Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, 1940

Lenin on inter-imperialist conflicts

The vast expansion of the industrial working class in many dependent-capitalist countries in recent decades dramatically refutes Rosa Luxemburg’s speculation that the bourgeoisie of the advanced countries was compelled to expand into non-capitalist territories due to the absolute saturation of their domestic markets. Once capitalism dominated the planet, she expected the bourgeois order would enter into terminal decline:

“Capitalism is the first mode of economy with the weapon of propaganda, a mode which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil. Although it strives to become universal, and, indeed, on account of this its tendency, it must break down because it is immanently incapable of becoming a universal form of production.”
Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, 1913

Luxemburg’s theory implied that capitalism would eventually automatically break down, although she remained a powerful advocate for a revolutionary working-class response to the wars and economic crises spawned by capitalism’s death spiral. Lenin, who was sharply critical of her analysis, commented to Lev Kamenev:

“I have read Rosa’s new book Die Akkumulation des Kapitals. She has got into a shocking muddle. She has distorted Marx.“
Lenin, Letter to L. B. Kamenev, 29 March 1913

Lenin asserted that capitalist rule would only end when the working class seized power and established rational socialist planning. He saw the growing tendency of huge capitalist corporations to organise production on a massive scale as preparing the ground for the future socialist integration of the entire global economy:

“When a big enterprise assumes gigantic proportions, and, on the basis of an exact computation of mass data, organises according to plan the supply of primary raw materials to the extent of two-thirds, or three-fourths, of all that is necessary for tens of millions of people; when the raw materials are transported in a systematic and organised manner to the most suitable places of production, sometimes situated hundreds or thousands of miles from each other; when a single centre directs all the consecutive stages of processing the material right up to the manufacture of numerous varieties of finished articles; when these products are distributed according to a single plan among tens and hundreds of millions of consumers (the marketing of oil in America and Germany by the American oil trust)—then it becomes evident that we have socialisation of production, and not mere ‘interlocking’, that private economic and private property relations constitute a shell which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal is artificially delayed, a shell which may remain in a state of decay for a fairly long period (if, at the worst, the cure of the opportunist abscess is protracted), but which will inevitably be removed.”
Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin cited the observations of Rudolph Hilferding, a leftist SPD intellectual, on the potential impact of capital exports from the more developed capitalist countries to less developed regions:

“Hilferding rightly notes the connection between imperialism and the intensification of national oppression. ‘In the newly opened-up countries,’ he writes, ‘the capital imported into them intensifies antagonisms and excites against the intruders the constantly growing resistance of the peoples who are awakening to national consciousness; this resistance can easily develop into dangerous measures against foreign capital. The old social relations become completely revolutionised, the age-long agrarian isolation of ‘nations without history’ is destroyed and they are drawn into the capitalist whirlpool. Capitalism itself gradually provides the subjugated with the means and resources for their emancipation and they set out to achieve the goal which once seemed highest to the European nations: the creation of a united national state as a means to economic and cultural freedom.’”

In recent decades there has been a vast expansion of production in much of the semi-colonial world. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the Asian “Tigers” grew rapidly, as did Ireland, the “Celtic Tiger.” More recently the rise of the BRICS has been seen by many as a viable economic challenge to imperialist hegemony. To date, the only serious threat to the dominance of the US-led imperialist order has come from China, whose spectacular economic development was made possible as a result of the 1949 social revolution that overturned capitalist rule and drove out the imperialist predators.

The industrialisation of many dependent capitalist countries in recent decades has confused many leftists, including adherents of formerly Moscow-affiliated Stalinist parties. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has adopted a “pyramid theory” which echoes the 1920s “left” communist claim that all capitalist states are imperialist. Lenin sharply criticised such notions and insisted on distinguishing between advanced and backward countries:

“Our Party resolutions speak of the present war as stemming from the general conditions of the imperialist era. We give a correct Marxist definition of the relation between the ‘era’ and the ‘present war’: Marxism requires a concrete assessment of each separate war.

. . .

“Advanced European (and American) capitalism has entered a new era of imperialism. Does it follow from that that only imperialist wars are now possible? Any such contention would be absurd. It would reveal inability to distinguish a given concrete phenomenon from the sum total of variegated phenomena possible in a given era. An era is called an era precisely because it encompasses the sum total of variegated phenomena and wars, typical and untypical, big and small, some peculiar to advanced countries, others to backward countries. To brush aside these concrete questions by resorting to general phrases about the ‘era’, as Kievsky does, is to abuse the very concept ‘era’.“
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

Lenin contrasted the advanced, “oppressor” countries which were enriched via their participation in the capitalist world market and the “oppressed” nations from which they extracted wealth:

“Imperialism means the progressively mounting oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of Great Powers; it means a period of wars between the latter to extend and consolidate the oppression of nations; it means a period in which the masses of the people are deceived by hypocritical social-patriots, i.e., individuals who, under the pretext of the ‘freedom of nations’, ‘the right of nations to self-determination’, and ‘defence of the fatherland’, justify and defend the oppression of the majority of the world’s nations by the Great Powers.

“That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky.”
V. I. Lenin, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 16 October 1915

Distinguishing between imperialist and non-imperialist countries does not imply parity among all the members of either category. In Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin commented on how the relative economic strength of different imperialists tends to fluctuate:

“It is known that the cartels have given rise to a new and peculiar form of protective tariffs, i.e., goods suitable for export are protected (Engels noted this in Vol. III of Capital). It is known, too, that the cartels and finance capital have a system peculiar to themselves, that of ‘exporting goods at cut-rate prices’, or ‘dumping,’ as the English call it: within a given country the cartel sells its goods at high monopoly prices, but sells them abroad at a much lower price to undercut the competitor, to enlarge its own production to the utmost, etc. If Germany’s trade with the British colonies is developing more rapidly than Great Britain’s, it only proves that German imperialism is younger, stronger and better organised than British imperialism, is superior to it; but it by no means proves the ‘superiority’ of free trade, for it is not a fight between free trade and protection and colonial dependence, but between two rival imperialisms, two monopolies, two groups of finance capital. The superiority of German imperialism over British imperialism is more potent than the wall of colonial frontiers or of protective tariffs….”

Lenin identified Germany’s rapid economic development relative to France and Britain as a key factor in triggering the inter-imperialist war. Germany had come late to the game of colonial conquest and was denied access to the markets and resources of its rivals’ colonies. Lenin rejected the pious claims by imperialists on both sides that their participation in WWI was motivated by the defence of freedom, democracy and their national homeland:

“In short: a war between imperialist Great Powers (i.e., powers that oppress a whole number of nations and enmesh them in dependence on finance capital, etc.), or in alliance with the Great Powers, is an imperialist war. Such is the war of 1914–16. And in this war ‘defence of the fatherland’ is a deception, an attempt to justify the war.”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht’s formula that, for workers on both sides, “the main enemy is at home” coincided with Lenin’s approach to such conflicts:

“The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan, one that follows from the experience of the Commune, and outlined in the Basle resolution (1912); it has been dictated by all the conditions of an imperialist war between highly developed bourgeois countries. However difficult that transformation may seem at any given moment, socialists will never relinquish systematic, persistent and undeviating preparatory work in this direction now that war has become a fact.

“It is only along this path that the proletariat will be able to shake off its dependence on the chauvinist bourgeoisie, and, in one form or another and more or less rapidly, take decisive steps towards genuine freedom for the nations and towards socialism.”
V. I. Lenin, The War and Russian Social-Democracy, 28 September 1914

Forms of imperialist domination over dependent-capitalist countries

Lenin considered the question of whether participants in any given conflict are imperialist or not to be crucial in determining the attitude of revolutionaries. He criticised those Polish Marxists who supported the independence struggles of colonial peoples but were indifferent to the plight of more developed oppressed nations (including Poland):

“The Polish comrades….have tried to differentiate between ‘Europe’ and the colonies. For Europe alone they become inconsistent annexationists by refusing to annul any annexations once these have been made. As for the Colonies, they demand unconditionally: ‘Get out of the colonies!’

“Russian socialists must put forward the demand: ‘Get out of Turkestan, Khiva, Bukhara, etc.‘, but, it is alleged, they would be guilty of “utopianism”, “unscientific sentimentality” and so on if they demanded a similar freedom of secession for Poland, Finland, the Ukraine, etc.

. . .

“…But revolutionary movements of all kinds—including national movements—are more possible, more practicable, more stubborn, more conscious and more difficult to defeat in Europe than they are in the colonies.”
V. I. Lenin, The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up, July 1916

Lenin was very aware that levels of economic development varied considerably among non-imperialist countries:

“The greater part of the dependent nations in Europe are capitalistically more developed than the colonies (though not all, the exceptions being the Albanians and many non-Russian peoples in Russia). But it is just this that generates greater resistance to national oppression and annexations! Precisely because of this, the development of capitalism is more secure in Europe under any political conditions, including those of separation, than in the colonies…. ‘There,’ the Polish comrades say about the colonies (I, 4), ‘capitalism is still confronted with the task of developing the productive forces independently….’ This is even more noticeable in Europe: capitalism is undoubtedly developing the productive forces more vigorously, rapidly and independently in Poland, Finland, the Ukraine and Alsace than in India, Turkestan, Egypt and other straightforward colonies. In a commodity producing society, no independent development, or development of any sort whatsoever, is possible without capital. In Europe the dependent nations have both their own capital and easy access to it on a wide range of terms. The colonies have no capital of their own, or none to speak of, and under finance capital no colony can obtain any except on terms of political submission.”

Lenin asserted that neither formal political independence nor the degree of economic development reduced the responsibility of revolutionaries to defend dependent-capitalist countries (i.e., those with net outflows of value in their external economic relations) from imperialist predators.

Imperialist countries do not always need to resort to military coercion; they have a range of tactics to achieve their ends, including bribing officials and buying elections, as Lenin pointed out to Pyatakov:

“If ‘wealth’ in general is fully capable of achieving domination over any democratic republic by bribery and through the stock exchange, then how can Kievsky maintain, without lapsing into a very curious ‘logical contradiction’, that the immense wealth of the trusts and the banks, which have thousands of millions at their command, cannot ‘achieve’ the domination of finance capital over a foreign, i.e., politically independent, republic??

“Well? Bribery of officials is ‘unachievable’ in a foreign state?”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

In recent years the US has engineered and funded a series of “colour revolutions” against troublesome regimes in various dependent capitalist countries, using pro-imperialist oppositions assisted by supposedly “Non-Governmental Organisations.”

Trotsky observed that authoritarian regimes (with or without a parliamentary façade) are the norm in semi-colonial countries where the indigenous ruling elites are unable to ensure basic necessities for the population because value is constantly being extracted through the mechanisms of imperialist investment and control. As a consequence dependent-capitalist and semi-colonial countries tend to be less stable and their rulers more frequently find it necessary to resort to crude repression:

“Inasmuch as the chief role in backward countries is not played by national but by foreign capitalism, the national bourgeoisie occupies, in the sense of its social position, a much more minor position than corresponds with the development of industry. Inasmuch as foreign capital does not import workers but proletarianizes the native population, the national proletariat soon begins playing the most important role in the life of the country. In these conditions the national government, to the extent that it tries to show resistance to foreign capital, is compelled to a greater or lesser degree to lean on the proletariat. On the other hand, the governments of those backward countries which consider inescapable or more profitable for themselves to march shoulder to shoulder with foreign capital, destroy the labor organizations and institute a more or less totalitarian regime. Thus, the feebleness of the national bourgeoisie, the absence of traditions of municipal self-government, the pressure of foreign capitalism and the relatively rapid growth of the proletariat, cut the ground from under any kind of stable democratic regime. The governments of backward, i.e., colonial and semi-colonial countries, by and large assume a Bonapartist or semi-Bonapartist character; and differ from one another in this, that some try to orient in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants, while others install a form close to military-police dictatorship.”
Leon Trotsky, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1940

Cynical imperialist lamentations about the absence of “democracy” in countries targeted for regime change, e.g., Russia, Iran and the Chinese deformed workers’ state, are routinely echoed by liberals and various pseudo-Marxists. Yet, as Trotsky observed, bourgeois democracy in the imperialist countries is rooted in the brutal exploitation of the majority of humanity:

“Disproportion of development brought tremendous benefits to the advanced countries, which although in varying degrees, continued to develop at the expense of the backward ones, by exploiting them, by converting them into their colonies, or at least, by making it impossible for them to get in among the capitalist aristocracy. The fortunes of Spain, Holland, England, France were obtained not only from the surplus labour of their own proletariat, not only by devastating their own petty bourgeoisie, but also through the systematic pillage of their overseas possessions. The exploitation of classes was supplemented, and its potency increased by the exploitation of nations. The bourgeoisie of the mother countries was enabled to secure a privileged position for its own proletariat, especially the upper layers, by paying for it with some of the superprofits garnered in the colonies. Without that any sort of stable democratic regime would be utterly impossible. In its expanded manifestation bourgeois democracy became, and continues to remain, a form of government accessible only to the most aristocratic and the most exploitive nations. Ancient democracy was based on slavery, imperialist democracy – on the spoliation of colonies.”
Leon Trotsky, Marxism in our Time, April 1939

Recent US-led attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, rationalised as initiatives to promote development and political democracy, all resulted in economic and social devastation. In the long history of colonial/imperialist conquest of less developed countries there has never been an exception to this pattern—which is why Leninists categorically oppose imperialist attacks on semi-colonial countries and always militarily side with the victim, however reactionary the ruling regime of that state may be.

The economies and social structures of countries subjected to imperialist exploitation are distorted by the imperative to maximise returns for parasitical foreign investors. Marxists support measures, however partial, by dependent-capitalist states to restrict imperialist exploitation. In 1938 Trotsky endorsed Mexico’s nationalisation of US-British-Dutch oil assets by President Lázaro Cárdenas:

“Semi-colonial Mexico is fighting for its national independence, political and economic. … The oil magnates are not rank-and-file capitalists, not ordinary bourgeoisie. Having seized the richest natural resources of a foreign country, standing on their billions and supported by the military and diplomatic forces of their metropolis, they strive to establish in the subjugated country a regime of imperialistic feudalism, subordinating to themselves legislation, jurisprudence, and administration. Under these conditions expropriation is the only effective means of safeguarding national independence and the elementary conditions of democracy.”
Leon Trotsky, Mexico and British Imperialism, 5 June 1938

Imperialist powers often choose to enforce their “right” to exploit semi-colonies with naked military coercion—Lenin observed that the British navy “plays the part of the bailiff” in the financial extortion of dependent countries:

“The income of the rentiers is five times greater than the income obtained from the foreign trade of the biggest ‘trading’ country in the world! This is the essence of imperialism and imperialist parasitism.

“For that reason the term ‘rentier state’ (Rentnerstaat), or usurer state, is coming into common use in the economic literature that deals with imperialism. The world has become divided into a handful of usurer states and a vast majority of debtor states. ‘At the top of the list of foreign investments,’ says Schulze-Gaevernitz, ‘are those placed in politically dependent or allied countries: Great Britain grants loans to Egypt, Japan, China and South America. Her navy plays here the part of bailiff in case of necessity. Great Britain’s political power protects her from the indignation of her debtors.’”
Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin was a firm defender of dependent capitalist countries against imperialist oppressors:

“A war against imperialist, i.e., oppressing, powers by oppressed (for example, colonial) nations is a genuine national war. It is possible today too. ‘Defence of the fatherland’ in a war waged by an oppressed nation against a foreign oppressor is not a deception. Socialists are not opposed to ‘defence of the fatherland’ in such a war.”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

Trotsky explained why the political character of the regime in the more backward country is irrelevant when it is attacked by an imperialist power:

“The coercive imperialism of advanced nations is able to exist only because backward nations, oppressed nationalities, colonial and semicolonial countries, remain on our planet. The struggle of the oppressed peoples for national unification and national independence is doubly progressive because, on the one side, this prepares more favorable conditions for their own development, while, on the other side, this deals blows to imperialism. That, in particular, is the reason why, in the struggle between a civilized, imperialist, democratic republic and a backward, barbaric monarchy in a colonial country, the socialists are completely on the side of the oppressed country notwithstanding its monarchy and against the oppressor country notwithstanding its ‘democracy.’”
Trotsky, Lenin on Imperialism, 1939

The defence of semi-colonial countries against imperialist predation does not imply any political support to the indigenous rulers—revolutionaries in these countries have a duty to oppose both foreign and domestic capital. This stance complements the policy of blocking militarily with bourgeois forces in resisting imperialist conquest, as Trotsky explained when Japan invaded China in the 1930s:

“Let us imagine, for an instant, a worker saying to himself: ‘I do not want to participate in the strike because the [trade union] leaders are agents of capital.’ This doctrine of this ultraleft imbecile would serve to brand him by his real name: a strikebreaker. The case of the Sino-Japanese War, is from this point of view, entirely analogous. If Japan is an imperialist country and if China is the victim of imperialism, we favor China. Japanese patriotism is the hideous mask of worldwide robbery. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive. To place the two on the same plane and to speak of ‘social patriotism’ can be done only by those who have read nothing of Lenin, who have understood nothing of the attitude of the Bolsheviks during the imperialist war, and who can but compromise and prostitute the teachings of Marxism. The Eiffelites have heard that the social patriots accuse the internationalists of being the agents of the enemy and they tell us: ‘You are doing the same thing.’ In a war between two imperialist countries, it is a question neither of democracy nor of national independence, but of the oppression of backward nonimperialist peoples. In such a war the two countries find themselves on the same historical plane. The revolutionaries in both armies are defeatists. But Japan and China are not on the same historical plane. The victory of Japan will signify the enslavement of China, the end of her economic and social development, and the terrible strengthening of Japanese imperialism. The victory of China will signify, on the contrary, the social revolution in Japan and the free development, that is to say unhindered by external oppression, of the class struggle in China.

“But can Chiang Kai-shek assure the victory? I do not believe so. It is he, however, who began the war and who today directs it. To be able to replace him it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary not to remain suspended in the air but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal. At a certain point, which we cannot fix in advance, this political opposition can and must be transformed into armed conflict, since the civil war, like war generally, is nothing more than the continuation of the political struggle. It is necessary, however, to know when and how to transform political opposition into armed insurrection.”
Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, 23 September 1937

Class-conscious militants in imperialist countries have a duty to actively resist attacks on semi-colonial countries through popular agitation, and strike actions to block imperialist weapons shipments:

“If tomorrow the French workers learn that two boatloads of ammunition are being prepared for shipment from France, one to Japan and the other to China, what will Craipeau’s attitude be? I consider him enough of a revolutionist to call upon the workers to boycott the boat destined for Tokyo and to let through the boat for China, without, however, concealing his opinion of Chiang Kai-shek, and without expressing the slightest confidence in Chautemps.”
Leon Trotsky, Once Again: On the Defence of the USSR, 4 November 1937

Lenin asserted that by actively supporting the struggles of the oppressed for national liberation, workers in imperialist countries help lay the basis for a future socialist world republic:

“This leaves only one single argument: the socialist revolution will solve everything! Or, the argument sometimes advanced by people who share his [Kievsky’s/Pyatakov’s] views: self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism.

“From the theoretical standpoint that view is nonsensical; from the practical political standpoint it is chauvinistic. It fails to appreciate the significance of democracy. For socialism is impossible without democracy because: (1) the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy; (2) victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy. To claim that self-determination is superfluous under socialism is therefore just as nonsensical and just as hopelessly confusing as to claim that democracy is superfluous under socialism.

“Self-determination is no more impossible under capitalism, and just as superfluous under socialism, as democracy generally.

“The economic revolution will create the necessary prerequisites for eliminating all types of political oppression. Precisely for that reason it is illogical and incorrect to reduce everything to the economic revolution, for the question is: how to eliminate national oppression? It cannot be eliminated without an economic revolution. That is incontestable. But to limit ourselves to this is to lapse into absurd and wretched imperialist Economism.

“We must carry out national equality; proclaim, formulate and implement equal ‘rights’ for all nations. And consistent, i.e., socialist, democrats proclaim, formulate and will implement this right, without which there is no path to complete, voluntary rapprochement and merging of nations.”
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

Imperialism & revolutionary class consciousness

Lenin described how the imperialists sought to co-opt privileged layers of the working class with a share of the super-profits generated by colonial exploitation:

“The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others. The intensification of antagonisms between imperialist nations for the division of the world increases this urge. And so there is created that bond between imperialism and opportunism, which revealed itself first and most clearly in Great Britain, owing to the fact that certain features of imperialist development were observable there much earlier than in other countries.”
Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism

He called for revolutionaries to decisively break with the reformists who dominated the Second International:

“The relatively ‘peaceful’ character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics. They were able to win the confidence of the masses only by their protestations that all this ‘peaceful’ work served to prepare the proletarian revolution. … Unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, which exploits other nations; it means splitting the international proletariat.”
Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International, January 1916

Lenin considered the pseudo-Marxist centrists of Karl Kautsky’s Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD, aka “Independents”) and the Independent Labour Party in Britain to be just as bad as the open reformists:

“The ‘conciliators in principle’ will try to falsify Marxism by arguing, for example, that reform does not exclude revolution, that an imperialist peace with certain ‘improvements’ in nationality frontiers, or in international law, or in armaments expenditure, etc., is possible side by side with the revolutionary movement, as ‘one of the aspects of the development’ of that movement, and so on and so forth.

“This would be a falsification of Marxism. Reforms do not, of course, exclude revolution. But that is not the point at issue. The point is that revolutionaries must not exclude themselves, not give way to reformism, i.e., that socialists should not substitute reformist work for their revolutionary work.”
Bourgeois Pacifism and Socialist Pacifism, 1 January 1917

In the same article Lenin addressed a problem that revolutionaries intervening in contemporary “peace movements” are familiar with:

“To bourgeois pacifists and their ‘socialist’ imitators, or echoers, peace has always been a fundamentally distinct concept, for neither has ever understood that ‘war is the continuation of the policies of peace and peace the continuation of the policies of war’. Neither the bourgeois nor the social-chauvinist wants to see that the imperialist war of 1914–17 is the continuation of the imperialist policies of 1898-1914, if not of an even earlier period. Neither the bourgeois pacifists nor the socialist pacifists realise that without the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois governments, peace now can only be an imperialist peace, a continuation of the imperialist war.”

When the USPD sought to join the Communist International, Lenin responded by demanding applicants declare their “unqualified support for all insurrections” by colonial peoples. This clear programmatic demarcation separated the subjectively revolutionary majority of the Independents (who joined the KPD), from Kautsky’s reformist minority who soon returned to the SPD:

“This unwillingness or inability to break with the top stratum of workers who are infected with imperialism, is also found among the Independents and the [French] Longuetists in their not conducting agitation for the direct, unqualified support for all insurrections and revolutionary movements of colonial peoples.

“Under such circumstances the condemnation of colonial policy and of imperialism is either sheer hypocrisy or the empty sighing of a stupid philistine. …

“By and large, all propaganda and agitation, all organisational work of the Independents and the Longuetists is more petty-bourgeois-democratic than revolutionary-proletarian—it is pacifist and not social-revolutionary.

“In view of this the ‘recognition’ of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of Soviet power remains purely verbal.”
Reply to the Letter of the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany, March 1920

Supporting military revolts against imperialism by colonial or semi-colonial countries does not imply any political accommodation with their ruling elites:

“…the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries; … the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.;… the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.”
Lenin, Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions For the Second Congress of the Communist International, 5 June 1920

In contrast to the Menshevik prescription that in each country indigenous capitalist development had to take place before socialist revolution was possible, Lenin asserted that more economically advanced socialist countries could help semi-colonial countries move directly to a collectivised property system:

“…are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations now on the road to emancipation and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal—in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development. Not only should we create independent contingents of fighters and party organisations in the colonies and the backward countries, not only at once launch propaganda for the organisation of peasants’ Soviets and strive to adapt them to the pre-capitalist conditions, but the Communist International should advance the proposition, with the appropriate theoretical grounding, that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.”
Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions at the Second Congress of the Communist International, 26 July 1920

In October 1917 the Russian working class represented a tiny minority within a predominantly peasant society, yet under Bolshevik leadership it overthrew the Kerensky government, expropriated the bourgeoisie and created the world’s first workers’ state. Lenin considered that the prospects of a successful socialist transformation in a country as backward as Russia hinged on the imminent possibility of revolutionary breakthroughs internationally:

“When we started the international revolution, we did so not because we were convinced that we could forestall its development, but because a number of circumstances compelled us to start it. We thought: either the international revolution comes to our assistance, and in that case our victory will be fully assured, or we shall do our modest revolutionary work in the conviction that even in the event of defeat we shall have served the cause of the revolution and that our experience will benefit other revolutions. It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish. In spite of this conviction, we did all we possibly could to preserve the Soviet system under all circumstances, come what may, because we knew that we were not only working for ourselves, but also for the international revolution.”
Lenin, Report on the Tactics of the R.C.P. at the Third World Congress of the Communist International, 5 July 1921

The recession of the revolutionary wave in more advanced capitalist countries (particularly Germany) necessitated a tactical retreat by the young Soviet workers’ state. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 was an attempt to revive the economy through a controlled restoration of market exchange for consumer goods while also opening up the economy to regulated imperialist investment:

“It goes without saying that we must grant concessions to the foreign bourgeoisie, to foreign capital. Without the slightest denationalisation, we shall lease mines, forests and oilfields to foreign capitalists, and receive in exchange manufactured goods, machinery, etc., and thus restore our own industry. …

“What compels us to do this? We are not alone in the world. We exist in a system of capitalist states…. On one side, there are the colonial countries, but they cannot help us yet. On the other side, there are the capitalist countries, but they are our enemies. The result is a certain equilibrium, a very poor one, it is true. Nevertheless, we must reckon with the fact. We must not shut our eyes to it if we want to exist. Either we score an immediate victory over the whole bourgeoisie, or we pay the tribute.

“We admit quite openly, and do not conceal the fact, that concessions in the system of state capitalism mean paying tribute to capitalism. But we gain time, and gaining time means gaining everything, particularly in the period of equilibrium, when our foreign comrades are preparing thoroughly for their revolution. The more thorough their preparations, the more certain will the victory be. Meanwhile, however, we shall have to pay the tribute.”

Lenin regarded the NEP as a means to buy time for the fledgling workers’ state—not as a first step in the creation of an isolated, self-sufficient socialist society surrounded by imperialist predators. Under Lenin, Bolshevik foreign policy was premised on the recognition that imperialist encirclement made long-term peaceful coexistence impossible. Lenin knew that imperialist investment posed serious risks:

“You will have capitalists beside you, including foreign capitalists, concessionaires and leaseholders. They will squeeze profits out of you amounting to hundreds per cent; they will enrich themselves, operating alongside of you. Let them. Meanwhile you will learn from them the business of running the economy, and only when you do that will you be able to build up a communist republic. Since we must necessarily learn quickly, any slackness in this respect is a serious crime. And we must undergo this training, this severe, stern and sometimes even cruel training, because we have no other way out.

“You must remember that our Soviet land is impoverished after many years of trial and suffering, and has no socialist France or socialist England as neighbours which could help us with their highly developed technology and their highly developed industry. Bear that in mind! We must remember that at present all their highly developed technology and their highly developed industry belong to the capitalists, who are fighting us.”
The New Economic Policy and Tasks of the Political Education Departments, 17 October 1921

Lenin knew the dangers posed for the young workers’ state by foreign capitalist enterprises and the partial relaxation of the monopoly on foreign trade. In his last article, he considered the possibility of an imperialist military assault:

“Can we save ourselves from the impending conflict with these imperialist countries? May we hope that the internal antagonisms and conflicts between the thriving imperialist countries of the East will give us a second respite as they did the first time, when the campaign of the West-European counter-revolution in support of the Russian counter-revolution broke down owing to the antagonisms in the camp of the counter-revolutionaries of the West and the East, in the camp of the Eastern and Western exploiters, in the camp of Japan and the U.S.A.?

“I think the reply to this question should be that the issue depends upon too many factors, and that the outcome of the struggle as a whole can be forecast only because in the long run capitalism itself is educating and training the vast majority of the population of the globe for the struggle.”
Better Fewer, but Better, 2 March 1923

What Lenin categorically ruled out was the possibility of long-term peaceful coexistence with imperialism and similar fantasies peddled by Kautsky and other social-pacifists:

“It is the duty of any party wishing to belong to the Third International to expose, not only avowed social-patriotism, but also the falsehood and hypocrisy of social-pacifism. It must systematically demonstrate to the workers that, without the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, no international arbitration courts, no talk about a reduction of armaments, no ‘democratic’ reorganisation of the League of Nations will save mankind from new imperialist wars.”
Terms of Admission into the Communist International, July 1920

It was Lenin’s unshakeable conviction that only global proletarian revolution could uproot imperialism and open the road to a socialist future for humanity. The Third International, world party of socialist revolution, was forged for the purpose of carrying out this perspective:

“A proletarian army exists everywhere, although sometimes it is poorly organised and needs reorganising. If our comrades in all lands help us now to organise a united army, no shortcomings will prevent us from accomplishing our task. That task is the world proletarian revolution, the creation of a world Soviet republic.”
The Second Congress of the Communist International – Report On The International Situation And The Fundamental Tasks Of The Communist International, 19 July 1920