Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism

First published in pamphlet form in St. Petersburg in 1917, Lenin’s Imperialism condemned the modern bourgeois state and the global capitalist system. Lenin saw war as the inevitable consequence of finance capitalism in its monopoly stage, and he developed a theory of international relations not found in classical Marxist theory.

Summary of Event

When World War I broke out in August of 1914, Europe’s Marxist socialists split over the meaning of the conflict. Most of the socialists in the fighting countries viewed the war as one of national defense and rallied behind the war effort in their own country. A minority vehemently argued that the prodefense socialists had failed to understand that the war’s true purpose was to serve the interests of capitalists who were trying to increase their profits by conquering nations both in Europe and overseas. Imperialism (Lenin)
[kw]Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism (Jan.-June, 1916)
[kw]Capitalism, Lenin Critiques Modern (Jan.-June, 1916)
Imperialism (Lenin)
[g]Russia;Jan.-June, 1916: Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism[03950]
[c]Government and politics;Jan.-June, 1916: Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism[03950]
[c]Economics;Jan.-June, 1916: Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism[03950]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Imperialism
Hilferding, Rudolf
Marx, Karl
Engels, Friedrich
Bukharin, Nikolay Ivanovich
Luxemburg, Rosa

Among the Marxists who condemned the war as an imperialist conflict and denounced prodefense socialists for supporting it was Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, who had gone into exile in neutral Switzerland. Toward the end of 1915, Lenin resolved to undertake an intensive study of imperialism, and the result was an influential pamphlet titled Imperializm, kak noveyshy etap kapitalizma (1917; Imperialism: The Latest Stage in the Development of Capitalism, 1924), which he completed in June, 1916.

The intense competition for control over regions in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific in the late nineteenth century challenged Marxists to rethink their assessment of the role of imperialism in capitalist economic systems. Karl Marx had attached little importance to imperialism in his theory of capitalism’s development and did not even see it as a distinct stage. Imperialist expansion might, he argued, delay the inevitable collapse of capitalism, but socialist revolution would inevitably break out in advanced industrial societies. To the extent that he considered the impact of imperialism on colonies, Marx viewed it as a force that laid the foundations for the future industrialization of backward countries.

Friedrich Engels, Marx’s collaborator, hinted at a new interpretation shortly before his death in 1895. Engels still believed that the overthrow of capitalism would begin in the industrial heartlands rather than in less developed societies, but he suggested that imperialism would actually accelerate rather than postpone capitalism’s collapse. Over the next two decades, a number of Marxian theorists—most notably Rudolf Hilferding, an Austrian economist; Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish socialist who belonged to the German Socialist Democratic Party; and Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin, a member of Lenin’s Bolshevik faction—expanded this insight into detailed theories that argued that capitalism had entered a new stage of its history.

Lenin was a political strategist, not a scholar. In his studies of imperialism, he was seeking material to use in his polemics against Marxists who did not share his conviction that the outbreak of war had demonstrated the immediate need for capitalism’s overthrow. Lenin was strongly influenced by several aspects of Hilferding’s Finanzkapital (1910; Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development, 1981), Finance Capital (Hilferding) and he incorporated the Austrian’s ideas into the pamphlet on imperialism even as he denounced Hilferding’s preference for reform over revolution.

Following Hilferding’s analysis, Lenin argued that capitalism in the era of imperialism had become dominated by capitalist oligarchies. These capitalist systems needed a strong state to protect their domestic market and to conquer and defend foreign markets, and this would lead to a growing level of conflict between rival capitalist states. Inevitably, Lenin theorized, attempts by these states to assert monopoly control over increasingly large parts of the world would result in war, and oligarchies would reorganize the capitalist system to minimize the anarchy of laissez-faire competition within each country. As a result, a new order of rationally regulated economic production would emerge and could form the basis for the socialist system that would be rapidly implemented after capitalism’s overthrow.

Lenin endorsed Hilferding’s contention that the precapitalist colonies would ultimately reject imperialism. National independence movements, while not Marxist in character, would inevitably emerge to challenge foreign domination of their lands. The current war, Lenin argued, was a product of this latest stage of capitalist development, and it would be merely the first of a series of imperialist wars that would redivide the world unless capitalism was overthrown.

After finishing the draft of his pamphlet in June, 1916, Lenin sharpened his analysis of imperialism in a series of essays that critiqued the theories of other Marxist theorists, particularly those of Luxemburg and Bukharin. In Lenin’s view, both Luxemburg and Bukharin underestimated the importance of colonial movements toward national liberation, which he saw as fundamental to the development of a socialist revolution. Nationalist movements would become difficult to pacify, Lenin argued, and they would soon require an increasingly expensive military presence. This would, in turn, induce falling rates of profit and rising discontent among the workers in the imperialist countries, eventually leading to the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Gradually, Lenin began to develop a new revolutionary strategy, one that emphasized the importance of the struggle against capitalism in the outer fringes of the industrialized world. Lenin asserted that rather than ignoring the developing areas and deprecating their national liberation movements as non-Marxist, Marxist revolutionaries should endorse national liberation movements in the colonies and take advantage of the disruption they caused in the capitalist system. Lenin remained convinced that the success of the socialist revolution would depend on the working class in the most advanced industrial countries, but he had come to believe that the revolution’s spark would come from the world’s less developed nations.


Lenin’s Imperialism had little intrinsic importance. As Lenin acknowledged, other thinkers had developed the basic precepts of a Marxist theory on imperialism before the war. Most notable among these thinkers was Hilferding, whose influence was clearly evident in Lenin’s writings. Even the insight that imperialism was sowing the seeds of its own destruction—in much the same way that earlier phases of capitalism had given birth to the working-class movement that would someday overthrow capitalism—came from Hilferding’s book. Lenin’s pamphlet was a polemical popularization whose principal purpose was to argue for the urgent movement toward socialist revolution.

The real significance of the pamphlet lay in the impact it had on Lenin’s subsequent ideas about revolutionary strategies. In his criticisms of Bukharin and Luxemburg, Lenin merged the Marxist theory of imperialism with his own convictions that World War I marked the beginning of capitalism’s death throes and that all true Marxists needed to seize the moment in order to effect a worldwide socialist revolution. He began to perceive that the less developed areas of the world, such as Russia and the colonies, were the weakest points in the capitalist system. Contrary to what Marx and his followers had predicted, the socialist revolution was more likely to begin along the peripheries of the capitalist world rather than in its advanced industrial heartland. Imperialism (Lenin)

Further Reading

  • Carrère d’Encausse, Hélène. Lenin. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2001. Translated by George Holoch. Emphasizes Lenin’s role in ideological disputes within the Socialist movement.
  • Cohen, Stephen F. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. A sympathetic analysis of Bukharin’s contributions as a Marxist theoretician.
  • Harding, Neil. Lenin’s Political Thought. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977-1981. Argues that Lenin was an orthodox Marxist theoretician even though his ideas underwent a radical transformation after the outbreak of World War I.
  • Meyer, Alfred G. Leninism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Presents the thesis that Lenin was an opportunistic Marxist thinker whose innovations reflected the failure of orthodox Marxist theory.
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Theories of Imperialism. Translated by P. S. Falla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Concise survey of the principal Marxist and non-Marxist theoretical writings on imperialism; assesses their strengths and limitations in light of subsequent historical scholarship.
  • Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Argues that Lenin’s theories and policies were shaped by an intense but controlled rage and hunger to destroy the old order and overcome political obstacles.
  • Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Lenin Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Convenient one-volume collection of Lenin’s writings; includes a slightly abridged version of Imperialism.

Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences

Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Lenin Announces the New Economic Policy