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Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Week 4

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

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Week 4

V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Executive Summary


Lenin (1870-1924) wrote this book in 1916, a year before his Bolsheviks took over Russia, turning it into the communist Soviet Union. He applies and adapts Marxism, which had been formulated in the mid-1800s, to the conditions of the early 1900s, when it was clear that socialism was not coming to be quite as Marx had predicted. We here summarize Lenin’s Preface, written a few years later, in which he presents his core themes. 


  1. Lenin says the “war of 1914-18 was imperialist”: the ruling classes in the belligerent countries were led by “finance capital” and engaged in class war. 
  2. Capitalism, as Marx describes it, creates a network of large-scale industries, “with monopolies, syndicates, cartels, trusts, banks and the financial oligarchy.” 
  3. One such heavy industry illustrates this process: railroads. Marx died before the full impact of railroads were known. Yet while railroads may seem to be “simple, natural, democratic, cultural and civilising,” capitalists have in fact “converted this railway construction into an instrument for oppressing a thousand million people” into their “wage-slaves.”
  4. In keeping with capitalist competition’s generating winners and losers, railroad competition has led to a few countries’ controlling most of the world’s transportation on their own behalf at the expense of most other countries. 
  5. The result is “a world system of colonial oppression” in which “a handful of ‘advanced’ countries” are able to engage in “financial strangulation” of the rest of the world. It’s not only that a few countries gain at the expense of most, but also that a small minority of people benefit while the “overwhelming majority of the population of the world” are exploited. 
  6. Yet those few plundering countries continue to fight amongst each other for larger shares of the “booty.” Those countries are “America, Great Britain, Japan,” and it is they “who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.”
  7. The Great War was “to decide whether the British or German group of financial plunderers is to receive the most booty.” The Germans lost, but the “brutal and despicable” so-called “peace treaties” imposed by the victors demonstrate clearly their exploiting intentions and are, fortunately, “opening the eyes of the millions and tens of millions of people who are downtrodden, oppressed, deceived and duped by the bourgeoisie.” 
  8. This is good news, because—as Marx predicted—capitalism’s “universal ruin” will lead to a “world-wide revolutionary crisis” which will lead the oppressed to rise up “in a proletarian revolution” that for communism will inevitably result in “its victory.”


Read Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2021.

See Next:

1. Karl Marx on "The Rich get Richer ..."

2. Stephen Hicks, "Did Keynes Save Capitalism?" (podcast)

3. Ayn Rand, "What Is Capitalism"

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