Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism by V. I. Lenin

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of CapitalismImperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism by V.I. Lenin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Inside the thicket of familiar Communist polemic are some thought-provoking and still-relevant insights.

In the 1990s I used to read The Globe and Mail, and one of my favorite contributors was Donald Coxe, who had a column in the business section. Coxe is an investment analyst and he manages one or more mutual funds of his own. Recently I was reading an interview with him on BullionVault.com, a British website devoted to buying and selling gold, and in the course of it he mentioned this book by Lenin, praising it as a brilliant analysis of how the business machinations of the European powers led to World War I. Intrigued by this recommendation from a capitalist I respected, I took the plunge and bought my own copy of Lenin’s Imperialism.

Now I’ve read it, and while I think that Mr. Coxe overstated the quality of this book, I did find some valuable ideas in it.

First the negatives: this is a Communist tract that is mainly preaching to the converted. It is filled with the typical rhetorical clutter of name-calling, sarcasm, and ad hominem jabs, all of which severely impair the seeming objectivity and credibility of the author. He spends much time excoriating other Marxist authors for their perversion of Marx’s doctrines. And it doesn’t help that Lenin himself went on to become a dictator and a tyrant.

Allowing for all of that, I found the book to be of definite interest. For one thing, Lenin is comfortable with facts and figures, and he presents a number of short tables showing the growth of industrial and then banking monopolies and cartels in 19th-century Europe and America. He observes how the frenzy of colonial land-grabs of the late-19th century followed hard on these developments, and he infers a causal connection: The original capitalism of free trade, which had made England so rich, had evolved to a later stage of monopolistic capitalism, in which competition has given way to coercion. He gives plenty of persuasive evidence of the predatory and anticompetitive behavior of the cartels in steel, railroads, oil, and electricity, to name a few. The tycoons at the top divided the world into fixed territories and set the prices. If competitors appeared, they were bought out or crushed.

Profits are bigger if you control the cost of raw materials yourself; this is achieved by capturing the territory where they’re produced. This is where a national element enters, for the cartels of different countries don’t necessarily play nicely with each other; their agreements can collapse. The cartels of each country drive their country’s colonial agenda. Lenin shows how Earth was completely parceled into colonies in the second half of the 19th century. And since World War I led to a big realignment of these, one has to wonder what role colonial competition played in that ferocious conflict.

In the last century, most colonies have achieved nominal independence. But war remains a big business. Why exactly is it that one country–one possessing vast resource wealth–is invaded to seize its nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction”, while another country–one possessing no resource wealth–is left alone, despite actually possessing such weapons? I’m speaking of Iraq and North Korea, but other examples come to mind.

War is justified to credulous voters in terms of ideology, “security”, or even emotional slights; but its real business appears to be what it has always been: the seizure of assets by force.

V. I. Lenin saw this 100 years ago. He thought that Marxism was the cure. Apparently it isn’t. So the disease rages on.

The ancient dictum still applies: cui bono?–“who benefits?” Or, in the words of the Watergate source Deep Throat: “follow the money.” Lenin followed the money, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to do much about it.

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