More than a hundred years ago now, ‘free competition’ capitalism, which had been growing for a few hundred years in Britain, and for considerably less time in western Europe, followed its natural tendency to concentrate production into larger and larger concerns for greater efficiency, competitiveness and profitability to such an extent that free competition turned into its opposite – monopoly.
Every industry came to be dominated by a tiny handful of companies that carved up the world’s business between them and obtained monopoly profits owing to the lack of competition.
Lenin was the first scientifically to analyse and explain the real nature of this monopoly era, showing clearly that imperialism is not a policy of this or that capitalist government, but a further and inevitable development of capitalism – its highest stage.
Lenin on imperialism
Lenin’s thesis on imperialism exposes three major contradictions in the modern world stemming from three of the fundamental characteristics of imperialism. In this article, we shall demonstrate the truth of this by examining each of the three characteristics in light of today’s situation in Britain (war abroad and cuts at home), demonstrate the contradictions resulting from these characteristics and outline our tasks in the light of this understanding.
First characteristic: The domination of finance capital (ie, the big banks) and the omnipotence (total power) of a financial oligarchy (small ruling group) that transcends all parliamentary, ‘democratic’ control. In other words, the total power of a network of big bankers and owners of corporations, which leads to the complete corruption of government, police, law courts, etc.
Under this domination of finance capital, more work is constantly being squeezed out of fewer workers, so that people are either totally overworked or unemployed. Wages are forced ever lower and the products produced are appropriated into the hands of the ruling class, who use the wealth acquired to repeat and accelerate the same process.
In other words, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The gulf between the mass of the population and the expropriating class – the bourgeoisie – is constantly growing, with more and more people being forced down into the lowest ranks of the propertyless – the proletariat.
It becomes clear to the people that no change of officials and ministers, no change of governments has any influence on how things are really run, and parliament is revealed to be a mere side show and talking shop, full of corruption and ‘sleaze’. As ordinary people become more and more impoverished, they are forced to realise that only a change of system will bring them any relief from the downward spiral.
This is exacerbated by capitalism in crisis, which is accelerating the privatisation of public services in its desperate search for sources of profitable investment. The result of this is to transfer even more wealth from the poor to the rich, leaving many without access to pensions, healthcare, housing or education.
For proof of this you need look no further than the industrial column of this paper. Although services are being decimated and living standards for an increasing number are plummeting, there is a growing fight-back – according to official statistics, 1.3m working days were lost through strikes in 2002, double the figure for 2001.
Conclusion: There is a contradiction between labour and capital, between the exploiters and the exploited within the imperialist countries.
A further demonstration of the contradiction at home can be made using the current war in Iraq. The corruption and propaganda that was revealed by the Hutton Inquiry may not have been very surprising to some, but the various media sideshows, such as Hutton last year and the ‘handover’ of power in June this year, have ultimately failed to distract the attention of British workers from the rising body count of British workers who have been sent as cannon fodder to protect monopoly profits in Iraq – deaths resulting from resistance to an illegal, brutal and predatory occupation that is clearly not seen as ‘liberation’ by the Iraqi people.
On top of this, information about the use of depleted uranium in Iraq shows that it is in fact the big imperialist powers that are the real terrorists, guilty of using ‘dirty bombs’ against an innocent population in order to force then into submission.
According to a report by David Swift: “Radiation levels between 1,000 and 1,900 times higher than normal were recorded at four sites around the Iraqi capital where depleted uranium (DU) munitions have been used across wide areas.
“Experts estimate that Britain and the US used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armour-piercing shells made of DU during attacks on Iraqi forces.
“That figure eclipses the 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf war. Unlike that largely desert-based conflict, most of the rounds fired in March and April were in heavily residential areas …
“Veterans of the first Gulf war believe that DU exposure has played a role in leaving more than 5,000 of them chronically ill and almost 600 dead.” (Dangerously high levels of radiation measured around Baghdad, Iraq Occupation Watch, 1 September 2003)
Second characteristic: Imperialist countries have colonies or ‘spheres of influence’, and there is frenzied competition between the various imperialists – now blocks of imperialists – over possession of the colonies and their markets, raw materials and avenues of investment.
The uneven development of capitalism constantly calls forth a redivision of an already-divided world, with the result that the only way for any imperialist or block of imperialists to expand its territory is at the expense of one of the other countries or blocks.
It therefore follows that wars are inevitable under capitalism – wars to conquer and subdue independent territory and wars to ‘redivide’ the colonies or ‘spheres’ according to the changing balance of power and development between the imperialists.
Conclusion: There is a contradiction between the imperialists themselves.
The first and second world wars were ample proof of the truth of this conclusion. Further proof can be given by the current attitude of the various blocks of imperialists to the war in Iraq.
The opposition of most EU countries to the war did not stem from concern for the people of Iraq, whose independence they also wished to see crushed, but from a clash of interests – French and German corporations and war machines need oil just as much as their Anglo-American competitors, and they have no wish to see the US in control of that vital flow.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the days when European imperialists were happy to bow to the superiority of the US are gone – they have their own, opposing interests to pursue, as was amply illustrated by the struggle for power and domination between Europe and the US in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Even during the war in Yugoslavia, where the various imperialist countries appeared to be fighting on the same side, future historians may well look back and see those conflicts as the opening shots of World War Three.
The contradiction between EU and US imperialism has been particularly apparent in Britain over the last two years, as the currently dominant section of British imperialism (mainly those with arms and oil interests) sided with the US over the war and the rest of the ruling class sided with the EU. This meant that, for the first time in recent history, large sections of the media were reporting against the government, denouncing the war and even discussing the thorny problem of US imperialism!
Having finally realised the impossibility of holding Iraq without a massive increase in troop numbers, the US and Britain had to perform an about-face and go cap in hand to the UN, previously disregarded as ‘irrelevant’, asking for a resolution to sanctify the occupation, after the fact, and to send in UN troops.
But their rivals in the EU didn’t exactly jump at the chance to bolster the US position of dominance over vital middle-eastern materials and markets, as even reactionary commentators in the US were forced to admit:
“The French government has, to say the least, no great interest in helping the United States out of the mess … France’s strategy within Europe is not to save America’s bacon but to convince the European public that every leader who followed the United States into Iraq – and especially Tony Blair – should be thrown out on his ear …
“The administration’s search for a UN resolution isn’t even aimed at getting European forces but at bringing in the larger forces available from Turkey, India and Pakistan … The fact is, we may never get them. The Turkish public remains hostile to any deployment. The Indian government is reluctant to take part without a UN resolution. And the French have little interest in passing a UN resolution solely to help the Americans get Turkish and Indian troops to relieve the American burden in Iraq.” (Why Iraq needs more US troops by Robert Kagan, Washington Post, 1 September 2003)
Third characteristic: There is a constantly increasing export of capital from the imperialist countries, necessitated by the need to find profitable sources of investment, which have dried up at home.
This means taking capital to where the cheap labour and raw materials are, setting up production there and extracting ‘superprofits’ – extra large profits derived from the superexploitation of workers, who are paid starvation wages and denied any kind of rights or health and safety at work. These huge profits are ‘repatriated’ – ie, brought back to the imperialist countries – ready to be exported again for the creation of more superprofits.
This amounts to direct theft from the exploited countries, since almost all the value the workers (who are paid the barest minimum they need to stay alive) have created, as well as the value of the raw materials, is taken out of their country, which stays poor, despite the huge wealth that the people there are actually creating.
Since labour is so much cheaper elsewhere, this export of capital also results in the closing of industry in the imperialist countries, which in turn leads to more and more dependence on the incoming superprofits from the exploited world. As relatively little production takes place in the oppressor countries, the income of the vast majority of people there, including the ‘safety net’ of the welfare state comes directly from the wealth created by workers in the oppressed world.
In this way, a handful of rich countries are oppressing the vast mass of the peoples of the world and grinding them further and further into poverty as more and more is stolen from them. But in the process, the oppressors create resistance – movements for independence and national liberation. These movements are anti-imperialist movements, because it is the imperialist system that is stealing their wealth and keeping them poor and oppressed.
Conclusion: There is a contradiction between the handful of oppressor nations and the vast masses of the oppressed world.
The truth of this can be demonstrated by the huge numbers of people around the world who are engaged in active struggle against imperialism.
Some of these struggles are led by communists whose ultimate aim is the establishment of socialism – the people’s wars in Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal, for example. Others are led by nationalist forces, as the movements for liberation in Ireland and Palestine are, or even feudal forces, such as those leading the resistance in Afghanistan.
Lenin’s thesis on imperialism shows us that, no matter what the class origin of these movements, in the context of the world system of imperialism, all those whose fight tends to weaken imperialism are objectively progressive and anti-imperialist, whether or not their leaders and ideologies subjectively understand that fact.
In the case of the occupation of Iraq, the more far-sighted apologists for imperialism have long since realised the impossibility of the US and Britain ever quelling the growing resistance there, as is demonstrated by the following article, written over a year ago by a respectable bourgeois commentator:
“THE WAR IS LOST. By most measures of what the Bush administration forecast for its adventure in Iraq, it is already a failure. The war was going to make the middle east a more peaceful place. It was going to undercut terrorism. It was going to show the evil dictators of the world that American power is not to be resisted.
“It was going to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It was going to stabilise oil markets. The American army was going to be greeted with flowers. None of that happened …
“Before the war, the threat of America’s overwhelming military dominance could intimidate, but now such force has been shown to be extremely limited in what it can actually accomplish. For the sake of ‘regime change’, the United States brought a sledgehammer down on Iraq, only to profess surprise that … the structures of the nation’s civil society are in ruins. The humanitarian agencies necessary to the rebuilding of those structures are fleeing Iraq.
“The question for Americans is, Now what? Democrats and Republicans alike want to send in more US soldiers. Some voices are raised in the hope that the occupation can be more fully ‘internationalised’, which remains unlikely while Washington retains absolute control. But those who would rush belligerent reinforcements to Iraq are making the age-old mistake.
“When brutal force generates resistance, the first impulse is to increase force levels. But, as the history of conflicts like this shows, that will result only in increased resistance.” (Facing the truth about Iraq by James Carroll, Boston Globe, 2 September 2003)
Lessons for the British movement
From the first contradiction, we can see that war and the crisis of capitalism at home present British workers with the following choice:
“Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a wretched existence as of old and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat. Imperialism brings the working class to revolution.” (JV Stalin, Foundations Of Leninism, Chapter 1, May 1924)
From the second contradiction, we can see that the inevitable interimperialist wars tend to weaken the various imperialists or groups of imperialists, and that this in turn leads to “the weakening of the position of capitalism in general, to the acceleration of the advent of the proletarian revolution and to the practical necessity of this revolution”. (JV Stalin, ibid)
From the third contradiction, we can see that oppression breeds resistance, and that: “The growth of the revolutionary movement in all colonies and dependent countries without exception clearly testifies to this fact. This circumstance is of importance for the proletariat inasmuch as it saps radically the position of capitalism by converting the colonies and dependent countries from reserves of imperialism into reserves of the proletarian revolution.” (JV Stalin, ibid)
These three conclusions together add up to the single conclusion that: “Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat.” (Preface to the French and German editions of VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 6 July 1920)
The history of all revolutions shows that no system, however rotten, will fall of its own accord. Quite the reverse – the more the rule of the senile class is threatened by the imminent arrival of a new society, the harder it fights to cling on to power.
Therefore, if we are to be successful in our mission of replacing capitalism with socialism, we must take advantage of the contradictions listed above and wield them in our favour.
This means first organising a party that is capable of giving leadership and direction to the struggle of the workers here in Britain, a party that has completely broken with the class-collaborationist ideology of social democracy and the Labour party, since the domination of this ideology has been the secret of the impotence of the British labour movement for over a century.
It means also working to combine all the anti-imperialist forces in the world into a united front against imperialism. For British workers, this means giving every support to those who are oppressed and occupied by British imperialist forces – in Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, etc.
We must further take full advantage of the contradictions between the imperialists to expose the whole system to working people in Britain.
For example, if sections of the mainstream bourgeois media are talking of US imperialism, they make it much easier for us to educate workers about the system of imperialism in general and the existence not only of US imperialism, but also of EU and Japanese imperialism.
By doing all these things, we will lay the groundwork so that when the crisis and war escalate to boiling point, our party is able to forge all these various movements into a single, unstoppable force for the complete overthrow of British imperialism.