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For Online Discussion on Lenin’s Legacy and Imperialism, sponsored by ILPS-Australia

By Jose Maria Sison
Chairperson Emeritus, International League of Peoples’ Struggle 

Dear Comrades and Friends,

By the time that Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916, he had already made major contributions to the development of Marxism in the fields of philosophy, political economy and social science.

I wish therefore to present first how Lenin’s theory on modern imperialism is related to and interconnected with his previous and prospective works that would together comprise his entire revolutionary legacy. Then, I proceed to focus on this theory, its implications and consequences in the socialist revolution in Russia and in the entire world in the time of Lenin. Thereafter, I discuss the implications and consequences on a world scale since the time of Lenin.

I. In Relation to the Entire Legacy of Lenin

The master work of Lenin in philosophy is Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which he wrote in 1909 to uphold the materialist-scientific outlook on objectively existing material reality and explain dialectical materialism as a mode of knowing and changing society and nature. He delved into how the general laws of contradiction operated in the particular laws of motion in particular forms of social and natural phenomena. 

He identified the law of the unity of opposites as the most fundamental law of contradiction. He further explained that the unity gives character and form to a certain entity and is temporary and relative because such entity is subject ultimately to change because of the permanent and absolute contradictoriness of the opposites. He also pointed to differences in similar entities and stressed the need for analysis of concrete conditions. He further pointed to the variations and uneven development of similar social and natural phenomena.

As regards to class struggle in exploitative society, the contradictions between exploiting and exploited classes are irreconcilable even as that society undergoes certain stages of development that seem to preserve indefinitely the character and form of society as dictated by the ruling exploitative class. But the exploited class that needs and demands liberation from the fetters of the old society is the driving force for revolutionary change and this can be accelerated by the rise of the subjective forces of the revolution. In What Is To Be Done? which Lenin wrote in 1901 and published in 1902, he stressed the need for a vanguard revolutionary party of the proletariat.

At the age of 19, Lenin read and studied Das Kapital. He proceeded to study the Russian economy and eventually wrote the Development of Capitalism in Russia in 1899. He noted the emergence of industrial capitalism in Russia with the rising bourgeoisie establishing industrial enclaves and impacting on the rural communes. At the same time, he observed the persistence of a military-feudal type of imperialism represented by the Tsar and the widespread landed nobility.

Tsarism welcomed the rise of industrial capitalism and the capitalist class as well as the service of the intelligentsia and the liberal bourgeoisie to the empire. Lenin identified the industrial proletariat as the most progressive and most productive political force for revolutionary change with the potential for winning political power with the support of the peasant masses and leading the people to socialism. His study of the political economy of Russia was closely linked to his study of state and revolution in connection with his purpose of carrying out a socialist revolution by the proletariat.

Even as the imperialist powers were frenziedly preparing for World War I, the first inter-imperialist war, Kautsky the leader of the Second Intrenational put forward in 1914 the theory of ultra-imperialism or super-imperialism, which he presumed as the way for the imperialist powers to override their conflicts and even develop the underdeveloped countries. As the inter-imperialist contradictions heated up, the revisionists of the Second International acted as social chauvinists and social imperialists in supporting the war budgets of their governments even as they posed as social pacifists.

But Lenin was consistent in regarding monopoly capitalism or imperialism as a moribund, decadent, bellicose and aggressive system. He had no illusions about imperialism as a benign and peaceful force. He saw it as the intransigent enemy of the proletariat and peoples of the world and he anticipated the inter-imperialist war to break out. In this connection, he saw the fatal weaknesses of the Russian ruling system in getting involved in the war and called on the proletariat and the people to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war.

Lenin’s study of the political economy of Russia and the role played by his country in the world of imperialist powers and inter-imperialist conflicts provided a sound foundation for the social science of pursuing the class struggle and revolutionary transformation. He was able to formulate the general line and strategy and tactics of pursuing first the bourgeois democratic stage of the revolution under the leadership of the proletariat and immediately proceeding to the stage of socialist revolution.

Ahead of Lenin, Plekhanov projected the bourgeois democratic and socialist stages of the Russian revolution. But he and the Mensheviks thought that the bourgeoisie must lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution and develop capitalism before the proletariat can perform the revolutionary class leadership. Through the February revolution and Kerensky government, the bourgeoisie was able to take power but not to keep it as the government continued to be involved in the inter-imperialist war and could not solve the grave deterioration of the Russian economy.

The Bolsheviks performed the role of the vanguard party of the proletariat armed with the correct revolutionary theory and with the political line demanding peace, bread and freedom. It was able to gain the majority in the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers and was able to overthrow the Kerensky government and replace the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat. Upon the seizure of political power by the Bolsheviks and the proletariat, the Great October Socialist Revolution began with the establishment of the class dictatorship of the proletariat on the basis of the worker-peasant alliance.

II. Lenin’s Theory on Modern Imperialism

Lenin’s theory on imperialism was of crucial importance in sharpening the understanding of monopoly capitalism by the Bolsheviks for the purpose of waging revolution in Russia and turning the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war as well as for countering the opportunism being spread by the revisionists of the Second International to confuse the people about the nature of imperialism and to justify the social democrats in collaborating with and supporting the monopoly capitalists in their respective countries.

Lenin made it absolutely clear that the Kautskyite social democrats were wrong in supporting imperialism in any way and denounced them for being social imperialists, socialist by word and imperialist by deed. He categorically declared imperialism as the irreconcilable enemy of the proletariat and the people. Most important of all, in putting forward his theory on imperialism, he defined the world era as that of modern imperialism and proletarian revolution and urged the proletariat and peoples of the world to wage revolution in order to defeat and prevail over imperialism.

In opposition to Kautsky and the revisionists of the Second International, Lenin stressed that imperialism was the highest and final stage in the development of capitalism as an oppressor and exploiter of the proletariat and people and was not in any way a factor for making peace among the conflicting imperialist powers and for raising the development of the underdeveloped countries. He exposed monopoly capitalism as a decadent, moribund, bellicose and aggressive form of capitalism. 

He observed that monopoly capitalists deployed direct and indirect investments in the colonies, semi-colonies and dependent countries. It did so not to develop these countries but to extract higher profits in an uneven and spasmodic way and leaving in the wake of its economic plunder worse levels of devastation and underdevelopment. In his study of imperialism, he showed how the economic and social development of the world became more uneven than before.

At any rate, Lenin defined the five features of imperialism as follows: 1. monopoly capitalism has become dominant in the economy and society of a country, 2. there is a merger of industrial and bank capital to form the finance oligarchy, 3. the export of surplus capital gains importance over the traditional export of surplus goods, 4. monopoly firms combine across imperialist countries in the form of cartels and syndicates and 5. the domination of the world by colonial and imperialist powers has been completed and violent inter-imperialist conflicts keep on arising due to the struggle for a redivision of the world.

In an imperialist country, one or a few monopoly firms have prevailed over competitors and have accumulated capital to the extent of controlling the entirety of every major industry in contrast to the past when there was a multiplicity of smaller companies in the free competition capitalism in most of the 19th century. In pre-imperialist times, the banks used to be mainly an instrument of merchants for trading. But in the advent of imperialism, industrial capital and bank capital have merged in order to muster investments more rapidly and on a larger scale for enlarging the productive and trading capabilities of the monopoly firms. 

The export of surplus capital gains importance over the traditional export of surplus goods as greater super-profits are to be gained not only from the expansion of foreign direct investments but even more so from the more parasitic and exploitative loan capital extended to the countries that are ever suffering from trade and budgetary deficits. As the weak and inferior kind of imperialist country, Russia was a prey to the Western creditors and was easily dictated upon against its own interest to plunge into an inter-imperialist war.

Monopoly capitalist firms form alliances among themselves in order to beat the competition within a country or on the scale of several countries in one global region or in the world at large. They use the states of their respective countries to compete and conflict with other states in the struggle for a redivision of the world in terms of cheap sources of raw materials and labor, fields of investment, markets and spheres of influence. Two blocs of imperialist countries oppose each other, escalate the level of aggression and move towards a situation that led to the World War I and World War II.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution confirmed that the world was not only that of modern imperialism but also that of the world proletarian revolution. It also confirmed that imperialism is the final stage of capitalism and the prelude to socialist revolution, as demonstrated in the Russian revolution and establishment of the Soviet Union by the proletariat led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A bulwark of the world proletarian revolution arose as a result of the first inter-imperialist war.

It was with far-reaching foresight that Lenin directed the formation of the Third International or Comintern in order to supplant the bankrupt and discredited Second International of social imperialists, social chauvinists and social pacifists and to propagate, carry out the communist and proletarian revolutionary line to fight and defeat imperialism in its home countries, colonies, semicolonies and dependent countries and ensure the rise of socialist countries through the class leadership of the proletariat against imperialism and all reaction.

III. Epoch-Making Consequences and Relevance

The consequences of Lenin’s teachings on modern imperialism and proletarian revolution are epochal and far reaching. Stalin carried forward the socialist revolution and construction in the Soviet Union, proving that socialism is possible in one country and building it as a powerful force against imperialism, fascism and all reaction. The Comintern succeeded in propagating the Marxist-Leninist principles, policies and line in the ideological, political and organizational fields on an international scale.

After a short period of relative peace and stability among the imperialist countries in the 1920s, the world capitalist system was again shaken by a grave economic and social crisis from the Great Depression of 1929 onwards, leading to the rise of the fascist states and the eventual war between Axis Powers and the Allied Powers in World War II. It was mainly an inter-imperialist war but the defeat of the fascist powers was effected mainly by the Soviet Union in Europe and by the armed revolutionary movements led by the Communist Party in China and other Asian countries.

The happy outcome of the second inter-imperialist war was the victory of socialism in several countries in Europe and Asia and the rise of national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the peak of the revolutionary wave in the middle of the 1950s, one third of humankind was under the leadership and governance of the working class and its revolutionary party in several countries, in contrast to the pre-war situation when the Soviet Union accounted for one-sixth of the surface of the earth.

But unfortunately, the scourge of modern revisionism afflicted the Soviet Union and ultimately caused its collapse in 1991 after decades of undermining socialism and restoring capitalism. Comrade Mao analyzed and explained the phenomenon of modern revisionism and put forward the theory and practice of continuing revolution under proletarian class dictatorship in order to combat revisionism, prevent capitalist restoration and consolidate socialism. But the Dengist counterrevolution in China made a successful coup in 1976.

Because of the revisionist betrayal of socialism in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere, we are confronted with a world situation in which the imperialist powers appear to reign without serious challenge by the proletariat and the socialist cause. But under these conditions, the teachings of Lenin on imperialism and proletarian revolution are even more valid and relevant than ever before. 

The temporary setbacks inflicted to the socialist cause by the modern revisionists and their imperialist masters still place humankind in the era of modern imperialism and proletarian revolution, in contrast to the overoptimistic slogan in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that imperialism was already heading for total collapse and socialism was marching towards world victory. Mao himself cautioned in 1969 that it would take a hundred more years to reach such situation. Indeed, it will take a whole historical epoch for socialism to advance and defeat imperialism in order to reach the threshold of communism.

After the death of Mao and the reversal of his proletarian revolutionary line, China adopted and implemented capitalist reforms and opened up to the US and the world capitalist system for integration. After the mass uprisings against inflation and corruption in Beijing and other cities in 1989, China became more driven to seek collaboration with the US and other capitalist countries, sought to liquidate completely the people’s war in Southeast Asia under the slogan of peace and development and became the main partner of US imperialism under the policy of neoliberal globalization, especially after China joined the World Trade Organization.

By maintaining a two-tiered economy of state monopoly capitalism and private monopoly capitalism, China has been able to take advantage of the economic, trade and technical concessions from the US in a big and rapid way by using state planning and mobilizing state financial resources, state corporations and private companies to achieve strategic economic and military goals of production. 

On its part, US imperialism has accelerated its strategic decline by financializing its economy, 
outsourcing mainly to China the production of consumer products and vital components of capital goods because of cheap labor there, increasing US direct investments there, pampering the military-industrial complex with gilded contracts for the production of high-tech weaponry and wasting huge human and material resources and more than USD six trillion in maintaining overseas military bases and engaging in ceaseless wars of aggression.

Now, the US is stepping back from its close all-round strategic partnership with China, accusing it of manipulating its two-tiered economy against the US and other capitalist countries, stealing technology from the US and other patent owners, creating and spreading Covid-19 and collaborating with Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and countries to undercut and defeat US sanctions against them. In brief, the US now regards China as its main economic competitor and chief imperialist rival.

The crisis of the world capitalist system has been worsening in an unprecedented way since the financial crisis of 2008. This has resulted in the depression and volatility of the world economy. The causes of the crisis have never been solved even as a new and graver crisis has come about to wreak further havoc on the world economy. The global neoliberal policy regime is unravelling as imperialist powers are increasingly becoming protectionist and prone to unleash state terrorism and wars of aggression. Inter-imperialist contradictions are growing and sharpening. 

As the main imperialist rivals, the US and China are trying to lead their respective blocs of imperialist power and preserve as well as expand their respective economic territories in the struggle for a redivision of the world. Wars of aggression and counterrevolution are increasing. We hope that the revolutionary movements of the people led by the proletariat can become strong enough to frustrate and defeat the tendency of the imperialist powers to unleash wars, shift the burden of crisis to the oppressed peoples and nations in underdeveloped countries and further plunder and destroy the environment. ###

Questions and answers after the above presentation

1. Why do some activists prefer to use ‘globalization’ instead of imperialism? They say that imperialism as a term to describe the inequality in this world is no longer relevant. 

Jose Maria Sison (JMS): It is more precise to say: Since 1979, imperialism has used the line of neoliberal globalization. Unqualified and abstract “globalization” cannot replace the term imperialism as Lenin has defined. At any rate, the mercantile capitalism of colonialism, the free trade so-called of free competition capitalism and relatively recent jargon of neoliberalism in the last 40 years of imperialism refer to the global scale of colonial and then imperialist operations.

It is wrong to say that imperialism is no longer useful or relevant to refer to or describe the inequality in the world between overdeveloped imperialist countries and the less developed or underdeveloped nonimperialist countries. Imperialism or its equivalent monopoly capitalism is still a valid and relevant term in relation to colonies, semi-colonies, dependent countries, client-states and oppressed nations and people in history as well as in current circumstances. The five features of imperialism defined by Lenin still exist and are valid.

We are still very much in the world era of imperialism because of the serious setbacks inflicted on the world proletarian revolution and the socialist cause by modern revisionism and imperialism. Capitalism has been fully restored in major former socialist countries. But we are also still in the era of world proletarian revolution because the extremely exploitative and oppressive character of imperialism continues to generate conditions that are favorable to the resurgence of anti-imperialist struggles and the world proletarian revolution. We are still in the world era of modern imperialism and proletarian revolution as proclaimed by Lenin.

2. Why do some activists say that China is not imperialist? 

JMS: Those who say that China is not imperialist are either die-hard revisionists or who do not know any better and ignore the following facts: 1. State monopoly capitalism in combination with private monopoly capitalism is dominant in China. The families of the highest state and party bureaucrat are on both sides of monopoly capitalism. 2. There is a merger of industrial and bank capital to form a finance oligarchy. The Chinese billionaires are finance oligarchs in control of industrial and financial operations. 3. China is not just an exporter of goods but also of surplus capital at very onerous terms. 4. It engages in combinations with foreign monopoly firms in other countries, and 5. It is a major player in inter-imperialist contradictions and now in a bitter struggle with the US for a redivision of the capitalist world. 

3. Do you think Mao’s theory of three worlds still has relevance today?

JMS: The so-called theory of three worlds or the diplomatic line spelled out by Deng Xiaoping at the UN has no relevance especially now, because in the so-called first world of superpowers the Soviet Union has collapsed and has become reduced since 1991 to capitalist Russia, which is a full-fledged part of the world capitalist system even as it has contradictions with the US. Some people might say China has moved into the so-called first world of Deng, especially as it is now increasingly in contention with the US. The so-called second world of lesser capitalist countries may be said to exist but not in the Dengist sense of their possibly becoming an ally of the continuing third world of underdeveloped countries which are oppressed and exploited by imperialist countries.

4. What are your thoughts on imperialism and Australia as an advanced capitalist country but subservient and beholden to US interests?

JMS: Indeed, Australia is an advanced capitalist country and can be evaluated and measured as an imperialist country according to Lenin’s definition of imperialism and can also be described as subservient and beholden to US interests. Among the imperialist countries, there is a hierarchy of the stronger and less stronger or weaker imperialist powers. Australia and Japan are now the strongest monopoly capitalist allies of the US in the Asia-Pacific region amidst the growing contradictions with the monopoly capitalist tandem of China and Russia.


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